Although he spent almost 12 months in neighbouring New Zealand working on Lord of the Rings Sir Ian McKellen only made one brief visit across the strait. He was one of the judges of the 2001 Mardi Gras parade. And it didn’t really leave him with fond memories.

It rained and I got a cold, he says, laughing. I didn’t exactly say I’d never come back but it felt a bit that way!

No surprise then, McKellen won’t be staying for Mardi Gras this year, but he is currently back in town for the Sydney Festival production of Strindberg’s Dance of Death. This recent English production of the 1900 play is described by Time Out as a slug fest which brilliantly captures the no-holds barred emotional violence of the piece-¦this is a portrait of a husband and wife as emotional vampires.

McKellen has enjoyed highly acclaimed seasons as the husband, Edgar, in London and New York. He says it’s one of the best productions he’s ever been associated with and one of the most thrilling plays.

McKellen is keen to emphasise that the slug fest has its lighter moments.

When the director of the Swedish National Theatre came to see it he said -˜Oh thank god a foreign production of Strindberg that understands that it’s funny’.

If you look at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Private Lives, which are both comedies, they’re also about a couple who can’t tear themselves away from each other even though they argue the whole time, and often violently. Dance of Death is the first modern play about a relationship, a marriage, which I think got to the heart of what a marriage can be – absolute misery and total love, and love isn’t always a nice sweet teddy bear affair. It can pull people apart and take them to the extremes of their emotions.

Ultimately, of course, plays sink or swim on their ability to involve an audience in the drama. And McKellen reckons this is one of the strengths of Dance of Death.

People come out of it and say to me -˜You were exactly like my father,’ one poor woman said, -˜You were exactly like my ex-husband’-¦I think that’s the impact the play has – audiences recognise it, McKellen says.

Famous in Britain as a great theatre actor McKellen has late in life developed an impressive film career. Most recently he has garnered acclaim as Gandalf in the Lord of The Rings trilogy and Magneto in X-Men. The irony is that contrary to popular wisdom his film career didn’t take off until after he came out.

The most remarkable thing for me about my coming out is apart from a few and I mean very, very few anonymous bits of hate mail -“ I’ve had total approval, he says.

But this doesn’t seem to have altered the way Hollywood thinks about gay actors.

I know one or two very famous actors who insist that they are not gay, and I think they are deeply troubled people and are clearly very, very unhappy because otherwise they wouldn’t feel the need to lie, McKellen notes.

But he is keen to point out that, in spite of its attitude to gay actors, the odd thing about Hollywood is that it is a very gay and lesbian friendly town.

There are gay policemen on the street, they have the finest custom built gay and lesbian youth centre that I’ve ever seen. You’ve got heads of studios, directors, writers, managers, agents, trainers every possible sort of person in the film industry who are happily out. They have an astonishing record for having raised money for AIDS when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.

Yet the one group that stick to the old ways and are encouraged to stick to the old ways, even by their openly gay advisors, are actors, particularly young actors. They are told: -˜You won’t have a career in Hollywood if you are out.’ Not because Hollywood is a repressive society but people can’t get their head around the idea that actors could be sexy on screen with a woman if in their private lives they only like being sexy with another man.

McKellen believes this attitude is out of touch with public perceptions, basically people understand that it’s all acting.

For Tom Cruise to say [as he recently did in a defamation suit] that if the world were to think he was gay he would no longer be able to have a career as a straight romantic lead is as stupid as him saying that now he is divorced from Nicole Kidman he can no longer convincingly play a married man on screen, McKellen says.

Then he adds, with a rhetorical flourish: It’s all acting, Tom.

He also has some stark advice for aspiring gay actors.

I say to them: -˜How many romantic young leading actors are there at any one time -“ maybe five. What makes you think that you are going to be one of the next group? It is so unlikely, yet in the hope of that ever happening to you, you are prepared to lie about your life and lead a double life. It doesn’t make sense. You have things way out of proportion’.

As McKellen knows, there are plenty of other opportunities.

Across the continent and on Broadway actors are forever winning Tony awards and thanking their boyfriends.

McKellen’s recent roles have cast him at both ends of the super hero spectrum as Gandalf the white wizard and the X-Men’s evil genius Magneto. He says one of the things that drew him to X-Men was the fact that mutancy is a metaphor for what it is like to be gay.

In X-Men 2 there is a scene where the young mutant comes out to his parents and his mother says: -˜Have you always known you were a mutant?’ I think that scene and others in X-Men have done as much to help young people feel at ease about being gay as any number of pamphlets-¦ I’m very pleased to have been involved with X-Men for that reason and it was sold to me on those terms by [director] Brian Singer who is gay, as are most of his writers-¦Everybody involved in it knows that X-Men is more than just a rollicking good adventure story.

Dance of Death opens at The Theatre Royal tonight and plays until February 7. Details: or Festival Ticketek 9266 4890.

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