Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins on Shakespeare, acting and the lure of British theatre

The acting titans on working together for the first time in BBC2 drama The Dresser and why one of them can't keep a straight face in rehearsal...

The assistant director’s call for silence in London’s Hackney Empire is a formality. In the stalls of this Victorian theatre, film extras are taut with expectation. Up on the stage, three knights of the realm appear to be engaged in a group hug. Not what you expect from Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Richard Eyre. 

The stage clears, a spotlight beams down, and Hopkins reappears, transformed from chuckling backslapper to towering tragedian. He launches into King Lear’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!…”, sending up phrases like flares in the stage-storm. Over on sound effects, McKellen is knocking hell out of an old-fashioned thunder sheet, plunging and rearing to Shakespeare’s wild word-music like a man possessed. It’s a heart bursting performance from two of our greatest living actors and the applause from the stalls is unstoppable. As one awed extra puts it, “This isn’t a job. This is a masterclass.” 

You can see his point. The BBC’s film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, about life in the theatre, brings together a dream team of talent. Directed by Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre, and co-produced by Colin Callender (Wolf Hall), it stars Hopkins, 77, as “Sir”, a touring actor-manager in the throes of a break- down, and McKellen, 76, as Norman, his dresser. The supporting cast of Emily Watson, Edward Fox and Sarah Lancashire is scarcely less impressive, but it’s the scenes between the leads that steal the show – one imagines Bafta’s “lifetime achievement” adjudicators watching them on a loop. 

Harwood’s 1980 play, based on his own experience as dresser to the renowned actor Sir Donald Wolfit, is set in a provincial theatre during the Blitz. “Sir” is projecting his Lear in defiance of air-raid warnings, and the relationship between the king and his fool finds a distorted mirror-image in the actor’s dependence on his dresser. By neat coincidence, Lear was Hopkins’s last stage role at the National in 1986, before he decamped, full-time, to Hollywood on a winning streak of movies such as The Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day, Hitchcock and Thor

“I sort of skedaddled away from British theatre,” says Hopkins. “I wasn’t a very good team player, I guess, but The Dresser has given me a taste for it again. The whole event has been one of the best times of my life.” Hopkins is not given to luvvie gush – he’s magnificently withering about actors and their “journeys of discovery”, but he slips into superlatives for McKellen. “It’s been the most wonderful once-in-a-lifetime chance to play this part with Ian. We’d known each other across the years – just a wave across the room, really. I’ve seen his work, knew he was a remarkable actor, but I’d no idea how funny he is. I couldn’t keep a straight face in rehearsal. Quite shocking, it was.”

His co-star wondered, initially, if he might be a bit overwhelmed. “It’s Anthony Hopkins!” he points out, forgetting that he is Ian McKellen. “I’d been asked to do The Dresser a number of times, but always playing ‘Sir’, and having seen the original stage production with Freddie Jones and Tom Courtenay, and then the 1983 film version with Courtenay and Albert Finney, I thought the world didn’t really need another production of this play.

“But when the invitation came to play Norman, I thought it might be interesting, and when I heard it was Anthony Hopkins playing Sir, I immediately said ‘Yes!’ And we got on right away. He’s so charming, so clearly happy to be back, working with his contemporaries and reminiscing about old times.” 

The atmosphere of an old-time touring company is so lovingly re-created that you can practically smell the gin- scented sweat of generations on fusty costumes. This BBC adaptation observes Harwood’s original stage version, but uses the whole of the Hackney Empire – backstage, wings, corridors and all as its set.

“There are very few plays which are accurate about what it’s like to be an actor, but this is truthful – it’s not romanticised,” says McKellen, who extemporised a vital training session on mid-century stage make-up. “Of course we’ve been there, we know it backwards, so no acting required, really. I remembered a theatre in Bolton where the star dressing room had a lavatory behind a little curtain, and I suggested this to the designers. So you do occasionally glimpse a dirty loo. That was my little contribution.”

Above all, The Dresser celebrates the “calling” of artists who hauled high art round the provinces. “I know from my own experience how important that was,” says McKellen who, for all his success in Lord of the Rings and X-Men films is a dyed-in-the-wool creature of the theatre.

“Growing up in Lancashire, I was very grateful to the actors who toured around. I saw John Gielgud on tour, and it made a huge impression on me. I’m a patron now of the English Touring Company, and, in the 1970s, I was involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company, touring Twelfth Night and The Seagull round 14 different places. We felt we were very much missionaries, taking out the message. We played mainly to school-children and, years later, I was talking to Michael Grandage [former artistic director at London’s Donmar Warehouse] who told me he’d been at that performance of Twelfth Night aged 15 and that it was the moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life. So you never know.”