World Travel
New Original Fiction
Books & Movies

Film Space
Movies in depth
Dreamscapes Two
More Fiction
Lifestyles Archive
Politics & Living
Sam Hawksmoor
New fiction


25 Years Online
••• The International Writers Magazine -

The Night When Actor Sir Ian McKellen Fell Off the Stage
• Dr Bonnie Devet

I’m one of those playgoers who always comes early to the theater just so I can be settled in. In fact, I am enjoying my “best-in-the-house” seat, (row 2, dead center, main floor or what the British call “stall” seats) at the London Nöel Coward Theatre. It is ideal for seeing Sir Ian McKellen in Player Kings, adapted and directed by Robert Icke.


I am anticipating a fine performance by some of the greats currently on the British stage, especially based on the novelty of the script and production.

Robert Icke, having condensed Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts I and II), has updated the plays’ setting to more or less contemporary times, such as in the opening sequence where Hal (the future king of England) enjoys a drug-infused party with some dubious characters, including, of course, Falstaff (played by Sir Ian). Icke has also helped the audience understand the history. Lowered from the ceiling, in neon red, are supertitles setting the scene or identifying characters (Hotspur refuses to give King Henry IV prisoners.).  After all, how many in the audience, including even the British folks, can recall the hoary, antediluvian details of Medieval England?  
This, though, is the 17 June 2024 performance: when Sir Ian fell off the stage.  

Up to this crucial moment, the audience was, naturally, focused on McKellen, the headliner and special draw for the show. Winner of Tonys, Olivier Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, and Emmys, he did not disappoint. He brought forth nuances in the role, showing how Falstaff embodies so many human frailties. Falstaff serves himself (Don’t we all?). He is especially skillful at pricking pomposity, showing it to be full of “air.”  Caught in a lie or “exaggeration,” he slides around and out of the net, deflecting his guilt.  Sly, skillful with language, he can put a spin on any event, interpreting it in his own way, especially to evade blame or shame. Yet, with all his faults, Falstaff enjoys the Prince’s company, and, to the extent that Falstaff can assume any type of “responsibility,” he relishes the role of being a surrogate father.  One can see why, of all the Bard’s characters, it is rumored Tudor Queen Elizabeth I liked Falstaff the best. With all his weaknesses, he unabashedly, even self-gloriously, enjoys being human. Falstaff is what he is.

Then, it happened. It was during the vital fight scene between Prince Hal (Toheeb Jimoh) and his rival Hotspur (Samuel Edward-Cook). The actors—skillful, committed, fully engaged—battle with knives in a roughneck street-fight. Hotspur is already soaked in blood, both body and face. Falstaff enters downstage, center right. He is within spitting distance of me. I hold my breath.

Sir Ian, through his magic as a performer, had woven a bond between the audience and his character. All of us were right there with Falstaff, on the stage, waiting to see what, if anything, Falstaff would do. Will he protect Hal? Not likely, even if he does care for Hal, Falstaff, being Falstaff, would prefer to avoid injury. Will Falstaff shout to distract Hotspur, giving Hal a chance to fight better, stronger? Only if doing so will not endanger Falstaff, of course.

Then, it happened. On a corner of the darkened stage, Sir Ian seems to have moved too fast to his mark, was too engaged with his character, slipping right off the stage onto an audience member in the front row.
Sir Ian’s Shakespearean voice boomed out: “My arm! My arm!”

So engaged with the scene, most audience members probably thought Falstaff was making a comment to distract Hotspur…all part of the fight. I know I did.
But it was not so.

Immediately, the stage manager descended to where Sir Ian had fallen. She asked the first row and then the rest of the theatre to evacuate. Obediently, we all exited left, to the alley between the local pub and the theater, waiting, waiting, waiting any word about Sir Ian.

Pubgoers quaffing ales wondered why the theatre had emptied so early in the evening. Naturally, with the audience displaced from the atmosphere of the play into the outside world, the magic web of the performance had vanished. An eerie quiet settled on us theatergoers. As we audience members huddled together in the alley, the shock of the show’s abrupt halt forced members to turn to each other, expressing their distress in different ways.  One elderly couple believed their role in this alley-way performance was to reaffirm Sir Ian’s talent and to express their admiration for the actor. Towards that end, the husband confessed that he and his wife had sacrificed to be there, having traveled “from the north” just for the play (quite a journey to come down to London). Sir Ian deserved their full esteem, as if to say it was not his fault. The couple embodied a quiet dignity, due to the actor.
Other theatergoers in the alley reacted differently. The audience and the actors had connected, all too powerfully, but now those emotions had to erupt, and they did. Some theatergoers wept openly, trying to find a place to lean or to sit while they expressed their shock, grief, and fear for the fallen actor. Even an usher, trying to maintain a young, professional demeanor, broke down, sobbing so hard her fellow “front-of-house” workers escorted her back into the theatre, for her own privacy and to lessen the emotional impact on those of us standing around. I myself felt miserable. Actors give so much to the audience. Had we all demanded too much? Mingling, mixing, we audience members had become our own play of shock, anguish, unhappiness for the 85-year-old performer.

Looking at the photograph of Sir Ian posted outside the theatre, we wondered if we had seen the last performance of this British Theatre Icon. To counter this feeling, theatre managers started to pass out vouchers for refunds or for a rescheduled performance, as if doing so would reassure the audience that “all would be well.”  Cold comfort, indeed.

In one sense, the “performance” was not over. Words are vital to the theater, evoking emotions, painting pictures. This sacred bond between actors who speak and the audience who listen was broken, though, by the BBC when it reported the story and by the public relations firm that handled Sir Ian’s fall.  When describing the accident, the venerable BBC stated Sir Ian had experienced a “tumble.”  Wait! No! Infants “tumble” as they attempt to waddle around, learning to walk, testing their chubby limbs. Sir Ian did not “tumble”; he nosedived into the audience. The BBC, also reported the accident had occurred “in a fight scene.”

Wait! No! Such phrasing implies Sir Ian himself had been wielding a knife, with his accident arising from too rigorous movement. Not so. Sir Ian had no weapon: Falstaff simply fell. Sir Ian’s own publicity folks, trying to protect the actor’s image and career, stated Sir Ian had had “a bit “of a fall but was in “good spirits” in hospital.

Wait! No! These PR people were not in the theatre to hear a Shakespearean voice cry out in pain and wretchedness.

Minimizing events, putting a spin on actions, and reshaping reality:  Falstaff would nod at what the BBC and the PR folks were doing.

© Dr Bonnie Devet - 7.9.24
Dr Devet is Professor of English/Director of the Writing Lab
Department of English
College of Charleston, SC.

More life moments

Share |


© Hackwriters 1999-2024 all rights reserved - all comments are the individual writer's own responsibility -
no liability accepted by or affiliates.