“Shakespeare was this supreme genius,” he says. “He was interested in all sorts of human beings, and human nature hasn’t changed all that much. Fashions, yes, but jealousy, love, hatred? That’s why people respond to the plays when they’re performed in modern dress, which I think all of them should be now. To suggest that Shakespeare is a figure of the past is just wrong. He seems to understand everybody, almost as if he invented them, invented us. It’s fascinating to study why people behave the way they do. When you’re playing someone like Iago, you have to understand him and all the reasons he wants to do what he does. People say Shakespeare wrote him as the embodiment of all evil – he didn’t. He presented a man and tried to understand how that man became the person he was.”
McKellen doesn’t just speak words, he expels them. There’s a marked pause before every answer, during which he stares into the air or returns to his lunch, one knee bouncing erratically while he formulates his thoughts. Then it bursts forth like a geyser.
“There isn’t as much Shakespeare around as there used to be,” he says. Growing up in Lancashire, Shakespeare was simply there, McKellen says, “like the park or the swimming baths. I first went when I was eight or nine to see my sister in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She played Bottom – ‘I’ve just been to see my sister’s Bottom!’” he exclaims in lusty Lancastrian. He became entranced by the theatre at an early age, soaking up variety acts and panto as hungrily as Chaucer and Chekov; for every moment he speaks with gravitas, there’s a glint of mischief. Perhaps this is why he’s managed to endear himself to a new generation as Gandalf the Grey.
And it’s why he’s the perfect man to introduce a new generation to Shakespeare. Worried your children might find Richard III hard going? There’s an app for that. At least, there has been since McKellen dipped his toe into the digital age. Though he doesn’t claim to know much about modern technology, there is one thing he understands with every fibre of his being – that he loves Shakespeare and wants to share that love with everyone else.
That’s why he got involved with Heuristic Shakespeare, the company behind an interactive app for students from school-age to PhD level. It’s based on the premise that many people are put off Shakespeare because it’s not meant to be read, but watched. So the developers have assembled a crack team of actors – led by the formidable McKellen as the meddlesome sorcerer Prospero in The Tempest – to read lines straight to camera in tandem with on-screen text. There are no sets, no costumes, just the work performed with the intonation and intuition only an actor can deliver. Whatever you do, though, don’t call it educational. “I hate the idea that Shakespeare is educational,” says McKellen. “It’s about enjoyment, fulfilment, danger and fun.”
And once you break into Shakespeare’s world, there are a wealth of lessons to be learned, he says. “At the heart of what Shakespeare taught me is that ‘all the world’s a stage’. We are all actors and we decide what costume to put on. I remember noticing I had a stronger Lancashire accent at school than I did at home. We disguise ourselves and change – we’re very accomplished liars.”
And with that, he finished his lunch and boarded a train back to Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Bard may have died four centuries ago, but thanks to masters like McKellen, his words are still very much alive.