The generation of actors who emerged from Laurence Olivier's Old Vic theater in London, and those who trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National, are what Ian McKellen calls "the family that is British theater." You can probably hear him saying it - those rich, round tones that could advertise Englishness and that, when he's dressed as a king or a wizard, strike the audience with something like a moral force. Working in this family, he says, "is not like doing a movie with a film star who is protective of their own territory and you're having to accommodate that. If you're in a play with Frances de la Tour or Maggie Smith or Vanessa Redgrave, there are certain shared assumptions." One of these is the primacy of the play - "The play's the thing!"
Another is a certain generational solidarity; an understanding that, for years, the private lives of a great many of their number were criminalized and, after being decriminalized, were so curtailed by disapproval as scarcely to register the change. "My friends are my family," McKellen says, and it is no small pronouncement.
When it was announced earlier this year that McKellen would appear as King Lear in Trevor Nunn's RSC production, theater-land gasped and fell to the floor. At last! The grandest of the actor knights in the grandest of Shakespeare's plays! In New York, where the play opened in September after its Stratford, England, run, you couldn't get a ticket for love nor money, and the foyer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music on the night I attend is a hilarious swim of famous faces and well-to-do New Yorkers trying casually to ignore them. When Lauren Bacall crosses the floor with Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, the provocation proves too great: the elbow of every person present instantly connects with the rib of their neighbor.
"Yes, she did enjoy it," McKellen says three days later when I mention Bacall. We are in his friend's loft in Chinatown, where he's staying for the New York run. His hair, dyed white for the role, stands up like a fire in a waste-paper basket and his eyes are that undiluted blue that, no matter how kind he's being, always looks vaguely accusing.
"When we said good night, she looked me in the eyes and said oh, how she loved acting! That it was a wonderful thing to do."
Playing Lear has put him in an expansive mood on the subject of human nature, although one suspects he doesn't need much encouragement. He is fondly regarded as the grandest of the grand British actors, grander than Anthony Sher, grander than Derek Jacobi, grander, even, than Ben Kingsley, and one imagines him waiting by the window if the postman is late, lamenting, "I am a man more sinned against than sinning." It's a bit unfair since, unlike Kingsley, he can send himself up, calling himself "Serena" as a camp play on "Sir Ian" and appearing recently in an episode of Extras in which he pondered, "How do I act so well? What I do is I pretend to be the person I'm portraying in the film or play."
But an impression of grandness prevails. It derives partly from McKellen's accent, elocutioned out of its northern English origins into that mythical RSC English, partly from the formality of his speech - he gives each thought lengthy gestation before articulating it - and mostly from the sheer volume of classical roles he has played. You hardly need see him as Lear: you can imagine it in your mind's eye.