A Knight in Harman Hall

The stage at Harman Hall in Washington, D.C. was graced by a towering presence last night (10/29/2009).  Sir Ian McKellan performed a one man show to benefit the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington D.C. and it was brilliant.


Sir Ian strode to the stage from the back of the theater, much as the President does for a state of the union, to rapturous applause and many, many smiles.  As things calmed down, he began by saying that Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, could we recount them.  People yelled from the audience the names of the plays, as he ticked them off  McKellan would tell an anecdote of an experience or some comment on the characters of the play.  Establishing a personal connection with the audience, Sir Ian assured that we would be right there with him as he proceeded through almost two hours of “something he’s trying for the first time”.

There’s an expression I’m sure we’ve all heard, “He could read from the phone book and I would be enraptured”.  Or something like that.

In those two hours McKellan took us through his life by anecdote, poem, scene, jingle, children’s song, dirty limerick  and even an entry from Roget’s Thesaurus.  He engaged the audience with humor and pathos.  We never thought we were incidental to what he was doing on stage, as you might for a play, we felt like this was very much a conversation even if it was a very one-sided conversation.


[Did you know that McKellan is the last actor alive to have been the first to perform one of Shakespeare’s characters?   The play, Sir Thomas Moore, was written by Anthony Munday but three pages of the single manuscript that survive are written in Shakespeare’s hand.  So, he is credited with some part of it, at least.  Since it was censored in Elizabethan times, it went unperformed until 1964 with Sir Ian in the title role.]

I’m trying to piece together all the individual pieces he performed like Sonnet 59 (which he performed as one side of an emotional telephone conversation which segued into the spoken lyrics of ‘Hard Days Night’, Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2.. I particularly enjoyed a poem written by his favorite poet which was meant to be part of a play.

At the end of the evening, he invited anyone in the audience who wished to join him on stage for a little acting exercise.   Being in the balcony, I hesistated, STUPID STUPID!! for by the time I made it down to the floor the ushers were turning people away.  Each person clambering onto the stage was greeted by Sir Ian with a warm handshake and a smile.  He gathered his group of new protege’s on stage with him at the center to give his instructions.  The group spread out across the stage and as he began to speak, the players fell dead to the stage.


Each and every one of them could now state, quite truthfully, that they once performed on stage with the great Ian McKellan.


There is so much I would like to etch perfectly on the fabric of my mind, but that is not the way of things for me.  I’ll carry away some pictures, and fragments will resurrect at times, but I’ll not be there again.  This was an evening I’ll carry with me in my person, if not perfectly in memory then in feeling.

IanMckellan-man-scaledHe, only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’

— William Shakespeare, (Julius Caesar)


2 thoughts on “A Knight in Harman Hall

  1. True story from James Madison University, 1989: I came home from a rehearsal of All’s Well That Ends Well, my first attempt at Shakespeare. I was frustrated, I was terrified, and I was just plain lost. I was reading my lines in rehearsal while others in the cast were really riding the wild winds of William. I was just stuck. I couldn’t find my voice. I tripped over words. I slipped over the lyrical magic of the verse. I came back to my dorm ready to quit.

    My roommate sat me down and said “Watch this video.” The video was a recording (yes, on VHS) of Ian McKellen, on tour back in the 80’s with a one-man show called “Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare”. (I still have a copy of it on VHS and need to burn it to a DVD before I lose it completely.) It was that one-man show recorded from PBS that got me over my fear of Shakespeare. Pure magic.

    Remember, Bruce…all the world’s a stage…

  2. An execllent article from you, all helpful in stuffing my brain up
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