Like Maggie Smith, he is, in the end, the great actor he is because it matters so much to him. Not the event or even the play but the fact that he is more fully alive, more fully himself, on stage than anywhere else. Crucial to his art is that we are in it with him. No fourth wall illusions for McKellen: it is all shared with an audience with whom his complicity is very frank – “Did you see what I just did?” being the unspoken question. And in life, when he is not on the stage, he is in the wings – always ready, as actors are in the wings, to share a joke or to become fascinated by some fresh thought, while all the while waiting and ready for the heightened life once they step into the light. His audiences have loved him for it, though few of the characters he has played have been lovable.
There is serious analysis of McKellen’s greatest performances — Iago, Richard III, Gandalf — and some of his less successful ones (in 1971, the Sunday Times’s Harold Hobson wrote: “The best thing about Ian McKellen’s Hamlet is his curtain call”). Yet O’Connor also has time for theatre lore and gossip, even a friend’s gratuitous description of McKellen’s “very large widdle-waddle” — an image probably still burnt into audience retinas after the RSC’s full-frontal production of King Lear in 2007. Uncovering the “real” McKellen is not that simple, though. O’Connor’s closeness to “Ian” — always “Ian” — grants him familiarity with his theatrical Cambridge milieu, featuring a tight-trousered Derek Jacobi, or his romantic partners, including the director Sean Mathias and (apparently) the actor Gary Bond, but it doesn’t always secure him a better armchair from which to psychoanalyse his subject... It is as much a “voyage of discovery” around British theatre as it is around its subject’s psyche, but unless McKellen rethinks his decision and writes his memoirs, this sprawling portrait might be as close as anyone gets.
As an actor he is effortlessly mesmeric, like his idol, Laurence Olivier. He is sometimes the extrovert, even the showman — too much so, I felt, in the case of that Coriolanus — but often you feel he’s drawing on something deep and painful inside. Is it glib to associate that inwardness with the homosexuality he kept hidden for so long and the loss of a devoted mother? I don’t think so. Nor does O’Connor, whose frustration at failing to pin down this elusive man is evident throughout a well-researched, eminently readable book.