Sir Ian McKellen talks Shakespeare on Screen

22 Apr 2016

5 mins
Sir Ian McKellen in Richard III
Sir Ian McKellen in Richard III

To Mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare on April 23, the BFI has launched the biggest ever cinematic programme of Shakespeare in the UK which will tour globally with the British Council. BFI Presents: Shakespeare on Film is a season of screenings, talks and  Q&As highlighting the portrayal of the Bard's work on the big screen. Into Film is proud to be partnering with BFI FAN on BFI Presents: Shakespeare on Film - a spectacular UK-wide series of 300 special screenings and events celebrating the enormous impact the playwright's life, work and legacy has had on cinema. Speaking at an event on Richard III, BFI Southbank's Shakespeare on Screen ambassador Sir Ian McKellen gave his insights into the journey.

"Let me start with Shakespeare… the chorus of Henry V, which seems to express to his contemporary audience the problems and the delights of how he wants to tell his stories. He says ‘can this cockpit' - the original globe theatre - ‘hold the vasty fields of France and may we cram within this wooden O, the very casks' - helmets- ‘that did affright the air at Agincourt' and then he says to the audience ‘peace out our imperfections with your thoughts, into a thousand parts divide one man and make imaginary puissance; Think when we talk of horses, that you see them.' In other words, this ain't gonna work this story, unless you use your imagination!"

The move from stage to screen has given the plays a new dimension, in the form of scenery, landscape and more recently CGI. Talking about the transition from historic norms to the inclusive and experimental nature of storytelling today, Sir Ian McKellen said: "We allow women to appear in Shakespeare's plays. He never imagined the time would come when it wouldn't be all male casts. He did dabble with an indoor theatre but he couldn't have imagined plays taking place with scenery… he was asking the audience to use their imagination."

Audiences can also now access and learn about the iconic works through a new app for iPad, featuring Sir Ian McKellen himself. Heuristic Shakespeare The Tempest allows users to follow the text and watch actors read the words out loud, almost like having your own private performance. With the shift in mediums, the audiences too have changed and McKellen noted the benefits to viewers of the Shakespeare on Screen season: "People who go to the theatre listen. People who go to movies are viewers, spectators so there is a tension. I think what's going to be so illuminating about being able to see at last so many of the Shakespeare inspired films, is the intriguing way in which different directors cope with the inevitable challenge of taking a very wordy method of storytelling and making it pictorial."

He continued: "It must have been thrilling for the invention of cinema to see famous actors, closer than perhaps you can see them in the theatre and see them in the familiar but exciting setting of real places, not scenery. Al fresco! The weather!"

Speaking about his own experiences bringing Shakespeare to the cinema with his adaptation of Richard III, he said: "The great joy of Richard III for me is that I was trying to honour Shakespeare in a cinematic way, but knowing nothing about cinema it was wonderful that Richard Loncraine, who knows a great deal was there to advise and direct and to hugely influence me. I knew nothing about cinema really and he didn't know anything about Shakespeare so we were an ideal combination."

Having previously been dubious over the transition that Shakespeare's work has made from stage to screen, Sir Ian McKellen finished by saying: "I think what's happened just in these last few weeks of meeting the BFI representatives and experts and delving a little bit into the archive looking forward to the riches ahead, is that it's already changing my mind as to whether it's appropriate or not to put Shakespeare on film, I think the answer to that is a resounding YES!"

As well as BFI Presents: Shakespeare on Film, there are many ways to engage with Shakespeare, his plays and how they are depicted on screen, including Heuristic Shakespeare The Tempest as well as a selection of our free resources to help learn more about the celebrated dramatist.  

Discover more Shakespeare film titles with our Into Film Recommends podcast below, or login to SoundCloud to download the podcast and listen on the go.

The Into Film Recommends Podcast Series is also available on iTunes.

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