Sir Ian's theatre magic

INSTANT ENSEMBLE: Sir Ian McKellen performs at the Clarence St Theatre in Hamilton during his tour. Audience participation is an important part of his show.
INSTANT ENSEMBLE: Sir Ian McKellen performs at the Clarence St Theatre in Hamilton during his tour. Audience participation is an important part of his show.

In Sir Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings the wizard Gandalf uses magic to both delight hobbits and fight evil.

But in real life, British actor Sir Ian McKellen - who has reprised the role for The Hobbit - has conjured up a little magic of his own.

For the past six weeks on Saturdays and Sundays he's toured new show Ian McKellen on Stage from Auckland to Wanaka, after largely spending Monday to Friday filming The Hobbit in Wellington. The goal is to raise money for Christchurch's earthquake-damaged Isaac Theatre Royal. All proceeds from the performances go to the theatre and it has so far raised more than $250,000.

McKellen's last two shows are this weekend, with a performance on Saturday at Wellington's Opera House - the audience will include some of The Hobbit cast and crew, including Jackson - and then the final show in Carterton on Sunday.

McKellen has spent large parts of the past 18 months on The Hobbit. Considering the demands of playing Gandalf it's impressive that the actor has found the time to take to Kiwi stages. Even the interview has to be squeezed in this week while McKellen is between takes on the set of The Hobbit in Wellington.

McKellen's show has two parts. He's relied on audience interaction to dictate the direction and subject matter of each performance. In the first part he's encouraged questions from the audience and been open to anything - his career, his roles, his childhood, on being gay. The second part focuses on Shakespeare, covering McKellen's own performances and the playwright's works - and more audience interaction. He got 100 people on stage for his Hastings show.

Appropriately enough McKellen opened the tour in Stratford. The audience included a 92-year-old Mastermind winner on Shakespeare and a seven-year-old boy who McKellen got on stage to grasp Gandalf's sword Glamdring.

"It's just me and a chair - Gandalf's chair from the set - and that's it. It's not a formal 'me sitting at a desk and they submit questions'. People just shout stuff out. It's often stuff I'm happy to talk about. Sometimes it's one-word answers, but more often five-minute answers.

"The audiences have been absolutely tremendous. It's not been an anonymous group of strangers. I feel like they're friends."

There have been occasional surprises. At the Hastings show he met his cousin's daughter "who I didn't know really existed, who has been farming sheep and cattle in that area for 30 years".

But while the questions from the audience have varied, he hasn't been floored by one yet. "I'm tempted to say 'somebody said did I enjoy playing Dumbledore in Harry Potter?' but I don't think anybody's asked me that. But the questions are often along the same line really."

McKellen was well aware of the Isaac Theatre Royal, having performed Waiting for Godot there in 2010. In the aftermath of the February earthquake last year, he learned about damage to the theatre via Christchurch actor Mark Hadlow, who plays the dwarf Dori in The Hobbit. "My first question to him was 'how's the Theatre Royal?' We were all thinking of ways to help and I thought, 'I don't work at weekends'."

His original idea was to split the take with each theatre he played in, but each venue insisted on all proceeds going to the Theatre Royal.

"It must be dreadful living in Christchurch right now. The Isaac Theatre Royal is one of the few iconic buildings that has survived, so it's going to make it all the more precious that the sooner it's up and running, the better for locals. They will feel they have contact with the past."

Despite the success of the show, McKellen says it won't be repeated in any form outside New Zealand. "It wouldn't be appropriate and is all centred on Christchurch and therefore New Zealand and therefore Middle-earth. The intention was always to do something special just for the occasion."

McKellen expects shooting to be completed on The Hobbit by the end of next month. He says it's likely he will return next year for a small amount of additional shooting for the second part The Hobbit: There and Back Again. But he has yet to be 100 per cent certain whether he'll return for the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Wellington in November.

"I expect so, but I really don't know yet. I don't know what the arrangements are. They have us going around the world doing publicity.

"[But] this is the world premiere. There will be further premieres in London, New York and Berlin and Tokyo and I may not be going on the whole of that tour. That will have to be decided."

The Details

Ian McKellen on Stage, Opera House, Wellington on Saturday and Events Centre, Carterton on Sunday. People can also make donations directly to Theatre Royal Charitable Foundation via its ASB Christchurch bank account 123191-0023507-01.

Have you been to one of his shows? Tell us about it.

The Dominion Post