How a Night with Ian McKellen Made Me Want To Be A Better Author
(Disclaimer- these were thoughts and feelings I had at the time. I know I am not a nobody. I just wanted to share an insight on the inner workings of my brain.)
The girl rose next to me, a gasp escaping her throat as she began clapping violently. No one else was standing. And I couldn’t have that. I stood with her, vicious in my happiness as I shrieked and cheered, the rest of the audience rising to their feet, our palms creating a war cry of joy.
Ian McKellen’s silhouette was a slash of black and gold as he stood in the spotlight, his arms outstretched as he bowed graciously before the audience.
I found myself gasping, my eyes watering. This was something I would never forget. This was something sacred. This was… magic.
I had escaped to Windsor solo for my birthday celebrations. I had been determined to enjoy myself throughout the day and do some writing in each pub I visited before the Hamlet showing. My two great loves combined.
But my excitement had become too great, and I found myself staring at the brick wall of the restaurant. My laptop was perched open before me, my manuscript eager and waiting for me to add to the word count.
But, happiness often chases away my creativity. And the words would not come. I was about to see Ian McKellen reprise his role as Hamlet, a role he had played 50 years ago. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Arriving early at the theatre, I made my way swiftly to the bar to order a glass of wine. £7.50 for a large glass could certainly have bought me a bottle of the good stuff back home, but I acted as though it was normal, passing over my bank card. Turning around, I faced a woman I recognised. But not just any woman. Anna Friel, the celebrated actress. I stared at her and then swiftly retreated to a table, feeling absolutely blindsided.
After a moment, grasping a bottle of water and a large bag of maltesers (which I absolutely adored her for even more), I gaped as she came to my table to set them down and organise herself.
Our eyes met. And the contact was too prolonged for it to be considered polite.
Oh shit. Say something, Elizabeth!
“I’m so sorry,” I blurted.
Fucking hell, not that!
She blinked. “Sorry?”
“I mean, sorry- I just- it’s so nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” she said politely.
I knew it wasn’t. I was a random woman who was ogling at her. And suddenly, I felt my lack of importance so brightly. I couldn’t explain it. I felt like I was a stub of charcoal in a sea of cinders compared to something bright.
She was successful.
Her friends were probably successful.
Say something interesting! My brain growled.
“I’m here solo,” I said.
“Solo seeing Shakespeare,” she said with a smile.
“Yeah, I’m doing a solo female empowerment… thing,” I said weakly. “As it’s my birthday.”
Wonderful, my brain groaned. You sound like an imbecile.
“Well, happy birthday,” she replied warmly. “I hope you are rewarded for coming alone.” But she’s an actress, isn’t she? She could hide it if she thought I was an idiot. Or maybe she was used to it. Or maybe it was genuine-
I don’t know- I don’t know-
“I feel like I’ve already been rewarded,” I said finally, cringing as I heard myself back. I rose awkwardly, hearing the two minute call for the show. “Well, have a lovely night. All the best to you.”
God, my Midlands accent was so thick. It had become so strong in recent months. Usually, I could manage to speak “properly.” But recently, I had been sounding like a coal miner’s wife, my old Tamworth accent becoming stronger and stronger as I spent more and more nights solo on the boat. She must have thought I was so common-
What would she say when I wasn’t in earshot?
“There’s always one.”
“Well, she was odd, wasn’t she?”
“It always happens.”
Would her friends laugh and agree?
Or maybe nothing would be said at all. Maybe, I was a nobody to… well, nobody.
Making my way to the stage, the theatre attendant stopped me. “I’m sorry,” she said apologetically. “Because you have an on-stage ticket, drinks aren’t permitted up here.”
I glanced down at my large glass of wine.
“Oh…” Could I skull it?
“You can leave it just here until the interlude.”
“Thank you,” I said with a grateful smile. “It’s either that or I down it!”
She laughed. “Yes, well, I’m sure neither of us want that.”
I laughed in false agreement, the perfect image of a lady. The perfect image of deception, still considering whether I could finish it in four swallows. I surrendered it anyhow.
I blinked over and over as I made my way to my seat, spotting Anna Friel in the first three rows and attempted to get onto the stage as graciously as I could. Two benches sat on either side of the stage, mostly hidden in shadows as the actors could perform in the centre.
Taking my seat between two other women who had come alone, I felt my excitement rise.
This was it- this was it-
And then burst forward the actors and actresses. My eyes burned as Ian McKellen came onto stage, shades and a top hat in tow. My breath left my lungs in a long exhale.
This was the moment that I had waited for. To be near this legend in life. I lost myself in the feeling as I attempted to wrap my brain in the Elizabethan language. But after an hour, my backside began to cramp from the wooden benches. The magic went from a stream to a trickle- to a yearning for the interlude, so I could stretch my damn glutes.
I mourned my glass of wine below stage. It would have helped, I thought. It would have been compensation for the numb arse, at least.
But Ian McKellen’s performance was compensation enough. When the interlude came and the cup of wine was in my grasp, I made my way outside with a cigarette.
“Sorry,” the door attendant said, coming towards me outside. “Drinks aren’t permitted outside.”
I blinked as though I wasn’t aware. I was perfectly aware, of course. But acted apologetically and, most importantly- a lady.
“Oh my goodness!” I breathed, putting it on the table in the foyer. “That’s so embarrassing!” I wasn’t embarrassed. I wanted that damn glass of wine this theatre was so determined to keep me separated from due to me buying the only seats I could afford in the theatre.
The cheapest ones.
Hearing the two-minute call for the final half, I stubbed out my cigarette, downed that damned wine with no time or point to buy another and found my seat once again. Ian McKellen’s voice washed over me in comforting velvety waves, the pauses and the gravelly intones stoking a comfort inside. I wondered how the younger actors felt in his presence. After all of these rehearsals, they were probably friends now, I thought enviously.
Six actors and actresses appeared below the age of 30, and they were on stage with Ian McKellen. And here was me, sitting in the audience watching them.
A nobody. Watching.
Their careers are sorted now, I thought, watching Ophelia come on stage. A beautiful woman, not only young but could act and sing too. Their paths were carved out. Clear cut and with a direction. A step process to go higher- bigger.
I didn’t know where I was going.
I continued to shift on my backside until the show’s end, when I rose from my seat and gave the actors the standing ovation they deserved.
I said my goodbyes to my two temporary companions and stepped out into the darkness of the evening. Couples and families all seemed to have a destination in mind, big smiles on their faces as they were able to discuss the show with each other. To be with someone. To be together.
I felt like I was outside looking in through a sheet of foggy glass. A part of an experience but not a part of the crowd.
I never felt as though I needed to be a part of it. That I needed to be with people. In a group.
But sometimes, like tonight…
It would be nice.
Walking past a pub, I glanced up at the sound of raucous laughter. An inkling to go inside prickled at me, but tiredness and hunger washed over.
You’re not that desperate for company, I told myself comfortingly. Get some food. Then home. And then we can figure out how to move forwards on our path.
I walked numbly out of the theatre and towards Mc Donalds- the only place with food that would be open nearing 11pm. I don’t know why but a hint of shame slashed through me. I bet the actors and actresses wouldn’t be eating there. I paused in a doorway to pull out a cigarette, looking up in time to see the actor who played Horatio walk past. I felt an urge to call out and say thank you for an amazing production. I swallowed it down, clenching my teeth.
I saw myself, a girl standing in a dark doorway, struggling with a packet of cigarettes.
I imagined myself calling out. “Horatio! Good job, buddy!”
Would he turn around, awkwardly nod and then continue on?
Probably. Best to retain some sense of composure.
There wouldn’t be anything special before him. Just a woman in her thirties, attempting to find a lighter in her handbag.
I’m not sure how such an amazing experience such as watching Ian McKellen star in Hamlet has made me feel so failing as an author. For the first 48 hours after the performance, I was dancing on a high. On an inspirational wave that made me want to achieve more, more, more–
But what more can I do?
What more can I do?
And now, days later I am sitting in my chair, looking back at a memory that was so golden in the moment and realising what those twinges of discomfort meant. The restlessness that they have brought.
To feel like a mere mortal in the presence of the Gods. To be stood outside of Olympus and only be able to see through the keyhole.
Never a part of it.
Call it narcissism. Call it romanticism. Call it arrogance.
I call it as an author having a bad day.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in other people’s accomplishments and feel lost in their blinding light. And I have no idea why this has affected me so much. All I know is that I don’t want to be a spectator anymore. I want to be a player in the game.
And so, I will carry on.