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When Ian McKellen finally got around to acknowledging to his mother that he was gay, he says, she responded that she’d known for 30 years. Some time later, McKellen chanced to mention her reply in public, and a British columnist seized the opportunity for a bit of humor at the noted Shakespearean’s expense: “I think,” wrote this wit, “that she spoke for England.”

“That was a little bitchy for a straight man, I thought,” McKellen observed shortly afterward, hoisting the writer neatly on the petard of his own innuendo—and proving for all time that a knighthood doesn’t mean quite what it once did.

That was in 1992. These days, McKellen is a trifle less cavalier when it comes to defending himself. When Stephen Holden charged in a review in the New York Times that the screenplay McKellen co-wrote for Richard Loncraine’s stylish new film of Richard III (based on a Royal National Theatre production that toured here in 1992) has been pared so drastically that it’s “little more than a collection of famous speeches connected by the Cliff Notes,” the actor positively bristles (though it’s a very urbane sort of bristle indeed).

“That’s overstating the case. I think he perhaps doesn’t know the play as well as I do.” The point, McKellen insists, is not how much of Shakespeare’s text has been cut out, but which bits have been left in—and which fleshed out. One of the play’s crucial scenes, he notes, is when Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening in the new film), widow of Richard’s brother, Edward of York, bargains with her brother-in-law, despite her hatred for him, to ensure her security under his rule. Elizabeth’s bargaining chip: her young daughter’s hand in marriage, which would help Richard tighten his grasp on power.

“It’s the great scene in the play,” McKellen says, “and it’s climactic in this movie. Olivier cut it from his.” McKellen has reached a point in his career, apparently, where he feels no reluctance to ask audiences to judge his readings of Shakespeare against those of the man to whom he’s most often compared. Laurence Olivier, he goes on to point out, also did away with all but one of the lines Shakespeare wrote for Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York (Maggie Smith plays her with stony relish in McKellen’s version). Olivier wasn’t interested in their relationship, McKellen says with a can-you-believe-it lift of an eyebrow. Ask anyone who’s seen the new film, with its decidedly Freudian overtones, and they’ll tell you that McKellen clearly thinks the old bat’s coldness is at least partly responsible for her son’s villainy. Actually, he says as much himself. “The whole emphasis of our film is, I think, where Shakespeare decided to put it,” McKellen says, rather staunchly. “Richard III is much more than just a jolly villain; he’s a complicated man psychologically, to speak in modern parlance, and the reasons for his behavior, without excusing it, are laid out in a way that we can understand.”

But like Olivier, McKellen seems not to have been at all reluctant to cut whole chunks of Shakespeare’s text, or to take liberties with the personalities who inhabit it, in order to make this newer, slimmer Richard. “I think even its greatest fans would admit that it’s overwritten. The long speeches that don’t appear in the movie relate back to events before the story proper has started. They fix the play in the context of the other three plays he wrote about the Wars of the Roses.” Make similar cuts in Macbeth or King Lear, he acknowledges, and “you’re in dangerous territory; you remove one brick from the wall and the whole structure begins to crumble.” Not so with Richard, he says. Compared to Shakespeare’s later works, it’s a melodramatic political thriller, its insights into human nature less than profound.

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For a relative newcomer to film—he’s only been working regularly in the medium for five years or so—McKellen has been remarkably canny about using cinematic storytelling techniques to condense information, to telegraph in a second or two what Shakespeare took three paragraphs or more to convey. The death of Richard’s reluctant wife, Lady Anne, for instance: In the film, her pallid face appears in close-up, and after an instant, a spider darts across her cheek. It’s creepily effective. Likewise, McKellen (along with co-writer and director Richard Loncraine) has blended the characteristics of the several assassins Richard employs in the play into one persona for the screen. The result is that Tyrell, played by Adrian Dunbar, signals menace whenever he appears, and the point of Richard’s distance from the murders he commissions is underscored. All these choices, McKellen insists, mean that though his Richard is noticeably shorter, “I don’t think the essence has been distorted.”

McKellen has been carefully genteel while explaining his approach to the cuts in his Richard III, but when he’s reminded of criticisms about the updating—the story plays out in the 1930s, a sort of alternate history of the interwar years, with Bening’s decidedly American queen (married to a wishy-washy sovereign named Edward) a suggestive reminder of Wallis Simpson—his patience thins. “What does irk me is when people say it’s not authentic. That’s a little bit of journalistic shorthand that really won’t do—because what does authentic mean? What is authentic Shakespeare? All the women’s parts played by men? Only to be performed in the open air without the advantage of electricity or of stage scenery Shakespeare didn’t use? I don’t think so.”

There’s a compelling motive for modern dress and a contemporary setting, McKellen argues: narrative clarity. A play with some 40-odd supporting characters isn’t going to come across on screen if the writer and director don’t provide moviegoers some visual clues to who they are. (What this says about the attention span of modern moviegoers as compared to Shakespeare’s groundlings isn’t the question at hand, really.)

“You cannot enjoy Richard III unless you understand in some detail the relationships between the people in the particular social class, the establishment, that he’s writing about,” McKellen says. “If you don’t pick up, for example, that Hastings is the elected politician of the bunch—is, as it were, the Prime

Minister—you miss the enormous significance of Richard’s daring to execute that man without a trial. If you don’t understand that Catesby quite clearly from the text is the permanent civil servant, ready to serve whichever monarch is in power, you miss the impetus of that character. Now, the minute you put them in ’30s dress, you can begin to distinguish who’s in the army, for example; in medieval costume there’s no such thing as an army uniform, so how could you tell who was of what rank? If you don’t understand those distinctions, you’re missing important plot and a lot of the fun. So those are my motives.”

McKellen spent the last half-decade in Hollywood, taking roles large and small in films as diverse in subject as The Ballad of Little Jo and The Shadow, as varied in tone and budget as The Last Action Hero and Six Degrees of Separation. The point, he says, was to make himself more comfortable in front of the camera while he and others were putting together the financing for Richard III. Now, it’s been five years since he’s worked regularly in the theater (a one-man show about acting and activism, called A Knight Out, was the exception), a place the self-described outsider once spoke of with a certain wistful longing:

“It’s a place where people can reach the pinnacle of achievement regardless of their education, their gender, their sexual orientation. Where young and old people work together as colleagues, and where we can love each other and touch each other without awkwardness. In that society, I’m not a misfit at all.”

Now, somewhat to his surprise, McKellen doesn’t miss the theater as much as he might have thought. “I don’t know quite why it is; it’s probably something to do with being close to retirement age in other jobs, or something to do with the satisfaction I get working on gay issues in the United Kingdom, but acting as an activity is much less necessary for my well-being than it used to be. I’m not as obsessed with it; I don’t judge everything I do by my career any longer. So I guess the ambition has been somewhat diluted.” More film work would make him happy, he says, and he’s pleased about what he describes as the continued growth of the Stonewall Group, the rather establishmentarian political organization he helped to found eight years ago in England.

Derek Jarman, the late filmmaker and radical gay activist, once sneered publicly at the Stonewall Group and at McKellen. The actor has always been gracious about the attack, which took the form of an open letter to the Guardian when McKellen accepted the knighthood offered by the Thatcher government, and he still is. His politics, like his manners, haven’t changed much in the five years since Jarman’s letter.

“I’m a little bit more sympathetic toward Derek’s notions about the situation of lesbians and gays in society, and I share his impatience that it’s taking such a long time for civic justice to be achieved. But I think what Derek was less aware of than I am is that the general population and its attitudes seem to be changing. And just before his death and subsequently, the press have been much better briefed on the issues, and report them fairly and often extremely sympathetically, which reveals that, as ever, it’s the politicians who are out of touch with the public mood.”

The United Kingdom, he says, could soon see a government of a different political complexion. “I think a lot of the seeds that have been recently sown, which are pushing up and are already small plants, will soon be fully grown trees should a labor administration come into power. But I don’t ever dismiss the possibility that sooner than I realize I mightn’t be out on the streets—at the barricades, as it were.” CP