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Magic and laughs, soliloquies and memories of a life spent on stage abounded when Sir Ian McKellen trod the boards of the Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North on Sunday, May 6, as part of his solo tour of New Zealand to raise money for the earthquake-damaged Isaac Theatre Royal, and Look To The Stars’ Feature Editor Tim Saunders was lucky enough to be in the audience.

From the moment he walked onto the stage, we knew we were in for something special. Sir Ian McKellen has true stage presence. There’s something about him that is commanding yet approachable, and we could tell straight away he was in the place where he feels at home and with the people he loves – on a stage with an audience. With a sparkle in his eyes and a mischievous grin, he greeted us like friends he knew well, and for a few hours we were part of something magical.

Sir Ian’s tour – Ian McKellen Onstage With Shakespeare, Tolkien and You – is a personal and entertaining journey into the life of one of the acting profession’s true legends. From the moment he sauntered onto the stage to deliver Shakespeare’s Seven Ages Of Man from As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage…”), he had us in the palm of his hand. With props from the set of Lord of the Rings, he delivered his rousing scene in front of the Balrog (“You shall not pass!”). And then he handed the proceedings over to us, turning the houselights on and opening the floor to questions – inviting the audience to ask him anything from what it was like to work with legends such as Dame Judi Dench and Arnold Schwarzenegger to how he learns his lines and remedies to homesickness.

And we didn’t want him to stop. Anecdote followed anecdote, and the audience was treated to a rare glimpse into a world not witnessed by the mere mortal public. With an audience that ranged in age from 7 to 80 (yes, Sir Ian did ask us how old we were), there was something for everyone, whether you were into Othello or Orcs, Hamlet or Hobbits.

A short break after the first half didn’t mean Sir Ian ran and hid in his dressing room – he mingled with the crowd in the foyer, chatting to as many people as he could.

The second half of the show was dedicated to Shakespeare, with a series of speeches and memories of stage successes and the odd failure as the audience were asked to name all 37 of the Bard’s plays. It was a master at work – his whole body and face changed as he became each character, flawlessly segueing between roles. The finale came with members of the audience invited onto the stage for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to act with the legend.

All of the money from the tour goes to the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch, which was badly damaged in the earthquake that killed over 180 people and devastated the city in February, 2011.

“I went down to the Red Zone [in Christchurch], where even locals aren’t allowed to go,” said Sir Ian, as he left the stage with a collection bucket in hand to personally collect donations from the audience in the foyer as they left. “You go into the centre of Christchurch, and it’s gone. It is like being on a film set waiting for the actors. There’s nobody walking around there, and buildings have tumbled down, they’ve been pulled down, they’ve been replaced. But like a good deed in a naughty world, the Isaac Theatre Royal is pretty well intact. It can’t be used, its not safe, it needs to be renovated. And that’s where our funds are going to, and within a year we hope it will be up-and-running again. And that will be a symbol in their wonderfully redesigned city – there will still be at least one iconic building, and an important one because as all of us know, a theatre can revive spirits.”

Sir Ian took the time to meet everyone in the audience as they left, exchanging autographs and photos for donations, and revealing his own humility and reminding us that even a wizard is human when he’s not wearing his hat.

Sir Ian McKellen is taking his show around the stages of New Zealand every weekend during breaks in filming for The Hobbit until June 24. For more information, click here.

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