On tour to celebrate his 80th birthday, Sir Ian McKellen has a good reason to recall his first starring role in Edinburgh 50 years ago.

Words Jean West 

Edinburgh matters to Sir Ian McKellen. Fifty years ago, when he played Edward II at the Assembly Hall, his on stage kiss with the actor playing the king’s lover caused a certain amount of civic apoplexy. One councillor objected – homosexuality between consenting adults had only recently been decriminalised and this was the headquarters of the Church of Scotland, after all – and the police were summoned to check out whether Marlowe was becoming too subversive for the Festival to handle.

A couple of constables turned up for the next performance, and even though the king’s death by red-hot poker was portrayed more graphically than normal (onstage not off), wisely decided that there was no problem. The controversy, however, ensured full houses for the rest of the run.

McKellen had been an actor for eight years already, but that summer – in which he also played Richard II with the Prospect Theatre Company – was when he made his name as a leading Shakespearean actor. Just before he came up to Edinburgh, there had been another artistic connection of sorts with the city, when he had directed a stage version of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the Liverpool Playhouse. But after Edinburgh, his place in the limelight was firmly secured, and one of the most stellar careers on the British stage was well and truly launched.

The Burnley-born actor turned 80 in May, and to celebrate he started an 80-venue UK tour which ends in Orkney later in August. For Ian McKellen On Stage, which showcases some of his signature roles, he has made a point of returning to the scene of his success 50 years ago.

For four nights at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, the twice Oscar-nominated star will be telling anecdotes and performing excerpts from some of his most famous roles. And what an amazing career it has been. From his 1976 Macbeth in Trevor Nunn’s production to his world-touring Richard III (first at the National Theatre, then on film) through to his 2017 King Lear for the Chichester Festival Theatre – which he has said was his final big Shakespearean role – he has dominated the British stage like no other actor. Of course, it’s not just Shakespeare either: in 2001, he extended his fame to all corners of the globe by accepting the role of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and in 2005, achieved a lifetime’s ambition by appearing as a regular in Coronation Street. Somehow, he has not only managed to do all of that and more, but also to be one of the country’s most prominent and effective campaigners for gay rights.

As with the rest of his tour, Sir Ian is donating proceeds of his touring show to local theatre-linked charities. In Edinburgh, he’s setting up a bursary to study performance and he will also be contributing to the refurbishment of the drama studio at Leith Academy – a collaboration between the International Festival and the city council. Many other places on the tour have already benefited from his generosity: even at its halfway point, the tour had already raised £500,000 for Sir Ian’s chosen causes.

“My return to Edinburgh is a chance to remember the old days and reprise Shakespeare and other roles,” he says. “The evening starts with Gandalf and will probably end with a chance to act with me on stage. In between there will be anecdotes and acting.”

Sir Ian returned to the International Festival throughout the 1970s, notably with his newly-formed cooperative, The Actor’s Company in 1972. Performances of Ruling the Roost and ’Tis a Pity She’s A Whore featured Sir Ian and Felicity Kendal in supporting roles as a page and a maid, allowing fellow company members to take the starring roles.

“Live theatre has always been thrilling to me, as an actor and in the audience. Growing up in Lancashire, I was grateful to those companies who toured beyond London and I’ve always enjoyed repaying that debt by touring up and down the country myself.”


Ian McKellen on Stage.

Assembly Hall, 22-25 August £40


About The Author


Edinburgh Festivals Magazine has been in publication for 11 years and has a readership of over 250,000 across the UK. You can find us in all major retailers including Asda, M&S, WH Smith and Waterstones. In its online form, edfestmag.com acts as one of the major reviewing publications for all Edinburgh Festivals.

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