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Ian McKellen & Shakespeare

A history of our Hamlet’s previous Shakespeare performances


Ian McKellen in Hamlet, Theatre Royal Windsor. Photo credit: Marc Brenner

“McKellen’s Shakespearean acting experience now spans 8 decades – from the 1950s to the the 2020s.”

Were you lucky enough to witness Ian McKellen’s Theatre Royal Windsor debut back in 2019? Celebrating his 80th birthday, Ian McKellen on Stage: With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and YOU was a one-man show that saw Ian share stories and reprise much-loved roles from his illustrious career. The second half of the show was dedicated to the many Shakespearean roles he has taken on, and those who were in the audience will be able to confirm that McKellen’s Shakespeare passion is second-to-none.

With his starring role in our production of Hamlet, McKellen’s Shakespearean acting experience now spans 8 decades – from the 1950s to the 2020s. We doubt there are many actors who possess a more extensive Shakespearean CV!

This blog takes a retrospective look at the Shakespeare plays our Hamlet has been a part of. Special thanks to McKellen.com for its extensive archive, links to which can be found throughout the blog to provide further details of Ian’s work and experiences performing Shakespeare.

1950s & Early 60s: School & University Years

Like many of us, Ian McKellen was introduced to the works of Shakespeare during his time at school. As a 12 year-old at Bolton School, McKellen’s first Shakespeare performance was an extract from Twelfth Night, where he played Malvolio. Since then he acted in a number of amateur, school and university productions from 1955-1960 including Cymbeline, Twelfth Night, Othello and Henry V. Those performances preceded a long-lasting and hugely successful acting career, and McKellen would revisit Shakespeare’s plays frequently over time.

Photo credit: Jack Merriman

1960s: Career Beginnings

1962 saw McKellen’s first professional Shakespeare production in Much Ado About Nothing at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, where he played Count Claudio. In the following years, McKellen took on a number of Shakespearean roles at theatres around the UK: King Henry in Henry V at Ipswich Arts Theatre (1963); Tullus Aufidius in Coriolanus at Nottingham Playhouse (1963); Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic (1965); and eponymous roles in Richard II and Edward II, both touring productions by Prospect Theatre (1968-70 and 1969 respectively).

“It was in 1971, when McKellen played the role of Hamlet for the first time – a role which he returns to 50 years later in Windsor.”

1970s: Debut Hamlet performance & Royal Shakespeare Company

It was in 1971, when McKellen played the role of Hamlet for the first time – a role which he returns to 50 years later in Windsor. The 1971 show was a touring production by Prospect Theatre. McKellen has not revisited the role since this tour, which covered the UK and Europe – making stops in Rome, Cologne and Zurich.

Over the rest of the 1970s, McKellen starred in an array of Shakespeare titles. The first was a 1974 UK tour of King Lear in which he played the role of Edgar, followed by a number of RSC productions from 1976 to 1978. His roles included included Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (1976, alongside fellow Hamlet star Francesca Annis), King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (1976), the title role in Macbeth (1976) and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night (1978).

1980s: National Theatre & RSC

From 1984-1986, McKellen was part of the National Theatre’s company – he played the title role in Coriolanus (1984) during this time. In 1989 he played Iago in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello.

1990s: National Theatre

1990-91 saw a UK and World Tour with the National Theatre of King Lear in repertory with Richard III – McKellen played the Earl of Kent in King Lear, and King Richard in Richard III.

“Ian McKellen has played the role of King Lear over 400 times since 2007.”

Photo credit: Sean Gleason

2000s & 2010s: King Lear

After achieving global recognition with his film roles in Lord of the Rings and X-Men in the early 2000s, McKellen returned to the stage in an RSC production of King Lear in 2007. He acted alongside Jonathan Hyde, who plays Claudius in our production of Hamlet. The pair have acted together in a number of productions, including The Cherry Orchard, The Critic and The Duchess of Malfi. Theatre Royal Windsor’s Hamlet is the second Shakespeare production in which they’ve acted alongside each other.

His most recent Shakespearean performance was Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2017-8 production of King Lear which received universal critical acclaim.  According to his website, Ian McKellen has played the role of King Lear over 400 times since 2007.

We’re delighted to have Ian McKellen as part of our company for this year’s production of Hamlet. Click the button below to find out more, and to book your tickets.



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