“I think it appeals to anyone, at least it seems to. And it’s rather heartening for someone who remembers a time when... it’s hard to put this into words. It was illegal to be gay,” the actor told the Evening Standard Theatre Podcast.
“There was a time not that long ago when it was illegal to be what you were born. But when when these two guys kiss, there’s a roar of approval, from a perfectly ordinary theatre audience which makes me think that theatre audiences are probably the best people in the world.”
He was talking alongside Roger Allam, who plays Frank in the two-hander, written by Ben Weatherill. The play, which tells the story of a tender relationship between two older men who meet walking their dogs on Hampstead Heather, started in June at the Theatre Royal Windsor, opening to warm reviews. It then went to the Theatre Royal Bath, and opens tonight at The Other Palace in Victoria in London.
McKellen’s character, Percy, is a writer of a provocative book about climate change, and the actor spoke about the right to freedom of speech, but suggested that the kind of trigger warnings that are now commonplace in theatre might be a good solution when dealing with controversial points of view.
“I think, on the whole, speech should be free, and freely available,” he said. “And perhaps sometimes combine that with a health warning. There are warnings now, when you go to a theatre: there will be cigarette smoke, there will be loud bangs, there will be discussion of bereavement and all sorts of things you’re warned about. Why can’t they, when someone with strong points of view that you don’t agree with is coming to your university, why don’t they just say outside, this person will be talking about these topics? So the audience can make up its own mind.”
Speaking about the bad behaviour of theatre audiences that has recently been in the news, Allam said that people who had come to see their play so far had been “appreciative”, though he remembered an American student heckling his Prospero in a production of The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013 with less fondness.
“Propero has this incredibly difficult speech about what happened 14 years ago, all this really tortuous stuff. And when I first mentioned Prospero’s wicked brother, Antonio, this guy in the front, pint of beer and stuff, just went “BOOOOOO!” So I looked at him for a bit, and not in an approving way, and then carried on as best I could. And then when I started telling Ariel off, he said, “Leave the poor spirit alone!” It was extraordinary.”
McKellen, on the other hand, made gentle fun of his co-star, asking whether he shouted at the planes when they flew over the open air venue.
Frank & Percy is now playing at The Other Palace, until December 3. The new episode of the Evening Standard Theatre Podcast goes live on Sunday at 5am.