Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ian McKellen Shat Self on Stage

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Okay, not be too sensationalist, it was in 1979 during his performance in the play "Bent" wherein Ian McKellen allegedly shat himself, but I'm getting ahead of myself. McKellen was the subject of a John Lahr profile in the New Yorker last week (Aug. 27 issue). The article isn't online, unfortunately. And to be honest, it's not the best of Lahr's profiles, or rather, it doesn't demonstrate what he does best with these profiles which is to eventually reveal something unprotected, unexpected, unmediated and human about his subject. He nailed it with Cate Blanchett. I loved her by the time that profile was through because she was given real dimension. She was funny. McKellen, it seems, was more impermeable. The meaty and interesting sections of the profile were offered by quotes from friends and colleagues. Most notably, writer Martin Sherman said of McKellen's performance in "Bent" (1979), a play about interned and humiliated gays in Germany during Hitler's reign:
He was sitting there, and he defecated. It was very subtle—but you saw in his body the spasm, which is what a person does in a period of such shock [referring here to the character having to kill his bf and then hump a dead girl]. It was one of the most stunning things I've ever seen.
Heavy. That's an actor for you. And this isn't even some sort of conceptual, confrontational theatre piece. The man, according to Sherman, simply shat himself (maybe that isn't so simple), to sell the scene, be true to the character. And that's all very interesting, but poor Lahr is ambling around England with McKellen who's working out the kinks in his performance of "King Lear," and Lahr can't seem to break through to what McKellen is really all about. By the end Lahr is exhausted seeming (on the page). He concedes, which is noble, in the second to last paragraph, "In all this legend of McKellen's brilliance, however, where was the shadow?" In comes McKellen's friend and profile cameo man (from a bit earlier on in the piece) Armistead Maupin, who offered the closing anecdote of the article. Maupin told Lahr this story about McKellen's grandmother believing he was only visiting her in her waning months because he wanted to sleep with the cleaning lady. When he explains that he's gay, she blows it off with, "So they say." The point of the anecdote is that, well, he had no other ulterior motive in seeing her, ostensibly, but even his beloved grandmother couldn't quite get what was going on inside of Ian. I'll be damned if Lahr could have done it. And if anyone could have, it would have been Lahr. He's one of the masters of the long form profile. But he didn't. Though, the Maupin anecdote at the end was a good save.

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