Each month I give my verdict on who has shown the world an interesting and distinctive brand. My latest Personal Brand of the Month goes to…
Sir Ian McKellen
Earlier this month at the National Theatre, I got to witness firsthand how remarkable this man is, both onstage and off. The performance that night was a culmination of a landmark tour in celebration of his 80th Birthday. His solo tour, Ian McKellen Onstage, crossed the country visiting over 80 venues, everywhere from Inverness to Southampton. Following this final performance (well, at least before its limited appearance in the West End!), the National Theatre hosted a birthday gala, during which McKellen personally made the rounds, thanking guests for joining him. Many performers might have skipped out early, heading home for a well-deserved rest after such an intense solo performance. But not McKellen. He stayed switched on and connected to his audience well into the night.
For me, the evening showcased just how strong and unique McKellen’s brand is. Here are some of the impressive attributes that emerged that night:
An undeniable passion
While the performance began with Gandalf (of course) — with a reading from The Lord of the Rings and an invited audience member wielding the wizard’s sword — it became clear very quickly that McKellen’s heart and soul lies in theatre. The first half of the show, peppered with anecdotes and re-enactments, is a heartfelt expression of the beginnings of this love affair.
His passion was most palpable in the second act, when McKellen asked us to shout out the names of Shakespeare’s plays and, in response, delivered an anecdote related to each one. McKellen, a true Shakespearean actor, truly shone during this challenge. The Guardian described his performance as “an evening of autobiography that is a love letter to theatre”, with Shakespeare getting the most mail.
A high Emotional Intelligence
Interpersonal connectedness is a hallmark of high Emotional Intelligence (EQ), and a powerful way of connecting with your audience is through story-telling. McKellen’s performance was just that: his story. The evening was a beautifully acted autobiography, one that reflected the richness of his life.
McKellen started out by sharing his early fascination with theatre, encouraged by his parents, who took him on a family outing to Peter Pan at Manchester Opera House when he was three. His sister, who was an actor herself, took him to his first Shakespeare production. While sharing his story with us, McKellen would often dip into his onstage trunk, a treasure trove that contained props and memorabilia which he used to recreate old characters or share intimate memories with the audience. One of my favourites was a book of Shakespeare given to him as a child, signed by Grandma and Granddad McKellen, which he proudly shared with the audience. Other intimate moments were shared, such as waiting to come out to his step-mum until his late forties, only for her to reveal to him that she already knew.
The Olivier Theatre seats over 11,000 guests, however McKellen managed to create a very intimate experience for his audience. His voice bellowed to the back of the theatre, surely reaching everyone, and he even took a moment to address those in the upper circle. I’m fairly certain he made practically every person in that theatre feel a personal connection to him. A big part of the night’s magic was in McKellen’s ability to regard the audience not as passive spectators, but as old friends; it’s almost as if you could imagine yourself sitting in his personal library or dressing room as he regaled you with his fascinating stories.
Even the programme to the performance (pictured above) was personal, a take home story of his life.
A warm authenticity
Very closely related to EQ, another unmistakable attribute that immediately struck me was his authenticity. He revealed all on that stage; scripted disclosures were matched with spontaneous ones. When he wasn’t re-enacting scenes from his past or dazzling us with Shakespere, he gave us the impression that there was little acting on that stage: what you see is what you get with McKellen.
A targeted activism and social responsibility
What’s most impressive here is that all the profits from each performance (including his fee) have been generously donated to each theatre’s charitable projects. Our tickets to the closing performance and gala, for example, enabled the National Theatre to work with even more schools and communities around the country.
In addition to supporting charities for the arts (with his solo show being one of his biggest charitable acts), McKellen makes it clear that his activism is targeted. On his website, he shares: “Since coming out in 1988, I’ve been asked, almost expected, to speak and write about gay issues. And I’ve been very happy to do so in London, Washington DC, Cape Town and on any number of Gay Pride Days everywhere. I have been reluctant to lobby on other issues I most care about – nuclear weapons (against), religion (atheist), capital punishment (anti), AIDS (fund-raiser) because I don’t want to be forever spouting, diluting the impact of addressing my most urgent concern: legal and social equality for gay people worldwide.”
An inspiration for younger generations
The first page of his programme is titled “80: So What?”. Here he shares the mission of his current work: “to show that it is possible to work in the decade beyond three score years and ten, with energy and joy.”
Given all the ageism and stereotypes out there, I’m always grateful to discover someone who breaks the chronological mold. McKellen does this beautifully during his performance. At one point, our octogenarian recalls the 80-year-old butler he once played in Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee; he recreated this character for us, a creation of his younger self’s stereotype of an “old man”. Needless to say, the character’s fragility was in complete contrast to McKellen’s vitality.
Everything about McKellen on that stage spoke to his stamina, vibrancy and youthful character. Not only did he endure the heat in multiple layers of clothing (there was limited if any air-con in The Olivier during an unusually hot night) and perhaps a head cold (I’m speculating given his sniffles), he also executed the physical comedy in his performance with ease. And given his impeccable delivery of a vast range of Shakespeare, it’s also clear he’s as sharp as a knife.
In his programme, he shares some secrets behind his energy, such as twice-weekly Pilates classes at his local gym. But he confesses that doing 80+ one-night stands across four countries as the best exercise. He also departs these words of wisdom: “If you are blessed with longevity, the best would be a life still active and meaningful”.
What an incredible inspiration and role-model for generations to come.