The Hackney Empire is far from the oldest stage in London. But after 115 years, it has acquired an air of faded majesty—ornate cornicing in chipped royal reds and golds, worn velvet seats sagging with memory—that makes it the perfect setting for a small piece of British entertainment history to unfold: Sirs Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen, venerable thespians who’ve blazed unlikely paths to multiplex glory, are sharing a scene for the first time.
The occasion is a BBC/Starz television adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s tightly wound 1980 play, The Dresser, in which an aging, once-great actor (Hopkins) leads a regional troupe in a production of King Lear during the Blitz, with the help of his devoted personal dresser (McKellen). On the Hackney set, Hopkins delivers the same line differently with every take: First Lear is incandescent with rage, next he is rueful, next merely confused. Lines are spat out quickly, then drawn out with relish.
The brilliance of The Dresser is the way in which the offstage drama mirrors Shakespeare’s tragedy, with German bombs echoing the raging storm in Lear. As it happens, the last time Hopkins trod the boards was in the role of the senescent monarch, in 1986. The chance to work with McKellen lured him back to the part, or at least to the part of a character playing it. “Last time round I wasn’t happy at the company. Didn’t feel like I fitted in,” says Hopkins. “It was good to have another crack at it.” Hopkins will soon get a third crack at it, in the just-announced BBC production of King Lear by the makers of The Dresser. Premieres May 30 on Starz.