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Covering McKellen: An Understudy's Tale Paperback – 1 Sep 2011


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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Rickshaw Publishing (1 Sept. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0956536808
  • ISBN-13: 978-0956536808
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 278,537 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I have been an actor for more than fifty-five years and only began writing in 2007. My first book, COVERING MCKELLEN, a diary I kept as we went around the world with KING LEAR, won the Theatre Book of the Year prize for 2012. COVERING SHAKESPEARE, which tells of my experiences in the 27 Shakespeare plays I have acted in, has been short-listed for the Sheridan Morley Prize for 2015.
I have also written two novels on the further adventures of the Artful Dodger: DODGER DOWN UNDER and the just released DODGER TREADS THE BOARDS.
I live in London, support Chelsea Football Club, and have discovered that it is never too late to start a new adventure.

Product Description

Review

An understudy at the Royal Shakespeare Company has written a remarkably indiscreet diary of going on a world tour with Sir Ian McKellen's King Lear. It describes back-stage bitching, bed-hopping and a cast mutiny against director Sir Trevor Nunn. There is even a night in New York when Sir Ian misses a cue because he had fallen asleep. An embarrassing pause is blamed on a technical fault, but it was really because the star's dresser had forgotten to make sure he stayed awake backstage. The salty diary has been written by veteran actor David Weston, who followed Sir Ian all year. It is in many ways a serious, fascinating book about the unsung role of understudies. But it could cause a severe attack of the vapours in luvvie-land when it is published in September. It certainly ignores the old saw, what goes on tour stays on tour. In Covering McKellen, Mr Weston describes selfishness among the company's younger actors, not least arrogant film star Romola Garai. Sir Trevor emerges as an unpredictable, distant, even neglectful figure who loses the loyalty of his actors. The cast becomes sloppy and disengaged, and an uprising occurs in Minnesota after Sir Ian is rough with an actress on stage. The production became notorious because Sir Ian's Lear dropped his trousers in one scene, revealing an instrument of Shakespearean proportions. Mr Weston suggests that Sir Ian, a great gay rights campaigner, adored all the attention paid to his undercarriage. Eccentric Frances Barber (Goneril) is depicted enjoying a bad review given to a rival actress. Mr Weston, who calls the cast 'the most dysfunctional company I ve ever been part of' , also has a go at us theatre critics. The beast! In the event, Mr Weston never did get to step in for Sir Ian, who is such an old trouper that he was never off sick. But the understudy did play Lear in a special rehearsal. The moment came to drop his trousers. Whoosh! At which point a party of schoolgirls entered on a tour of the theatre. Screams all round. --Quentin Letts, Daily Mail

In the preface to his entertaining new book about being Ian McKellen's understudy, the author David Weston asks: "Why should anyone be interested in reading the meanderings of a relatively unknown old actor, when so many memoirs and biographies of the famous go unread." The answer - and one that Weston is too modest to declare himself - is that Covering McKellen is a hugely enjoyable read that often put me in mind of The Diary of a Nobody. Imagine Mr Pooter serving as an understudy in the RSC's troubled double bill of King Lear and The Seagull, which toured to four continents in 2007, and you will get some idea of the comic delights on offer.
The production of Lear became notorious for two things - the fact that McKellen stripped off in the storm sequence, and that the press night in Stratford was delayed for many weeks after Frances Barber was injured in a bicycle accident. What I didn't know before reading this was that many of the cast became deeply fed up with the director, Trevor Nunn - though Weston remains touchingly loyal to him - and that relations were often troubled between individual cast members. Weston describes it as the most dysfunctional company he has ever worked with.
He had small roles in both plays but his main responsibility was understudying McKellen's Lear - though Sir Ian, brilliantly nicknamed Serena by his fellow luvvies, never actually missed a performance. He came perilously close, though, on two occasions being fast asleep when he should have been preparing to make his entrance from the wings.
"There is no doubt about it: I am a boring old faart" confides Weston at one point in his diary, but his tut-tutting over the behaviour of the younger actors, his recounting of some terrific theatrical anecdotes and his fundamental decency shine like a good deed in a naughty world. He also sends himself up delightfully. Muttering Lear's lines to himself on the bus, he notices a young girl giving him such a pitying look that "she must think I am senile".
There is also a brilliant account of McKellen stripping off for the first time in the rehearsal room. "His magnificent manhood dangles in the dusty air. I watch the female heads of department avert their eyes like Victorian maidens. I'll never match up to him - in every aspect, Sir Ian's part is far bigger than mine."
He's very funny, too, on the garrulity of Nunn in rehearsals with actors nodding off as he goes on for hours, but, beyond all the sharp observation, there is a manifest love of the theatre. As the actors huddle together before the long-delayed press night of Lear, this man who has worked in the theatre all his life without ever achieving fame or great acclaim writes: "I know at that moment why I have persisted with my career in spite of all the pitfalls and disappointments over so many years. I am an actor; I love nothing more than being in an ensemble of actors."
For anyone who wants to learn what the life of a jobbing actor is really like, this engaging, splendidly indiscreet book, published on Sept 1 by Rickshaw, is required reading.Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph --Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

David Weston has written an original fascinating, often hilarious and always wonderfully quirky book about what happened behind the scenes when a great actor and a fine production took a sometimes satisfying, sometimes troubles tour around the theatrical world. --Benedict Nightingale

About the Author

David Weston was born in London and was educated at Alleyn's School Dulwich where he was taught by Michael Croft and helped to found the National Youth Theatre. After National Service, where he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery, he won a scholarship to RADA. After seasons of rep in Cheltenham and Manchester he spent most of the sixties making films, including leading roles in such classics as Becket, Heroes of Telemark, Masque of the Red Death and the leading role in Walt Disney's Legend of Young Dick Turpin. Although he has appeared in countless television series and plays, from Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars, via Minder, Lovejoy, Doctor Who to East Enders and The Bill, his main career has been in the theatre where he was appeared in 27 of Shakespeare's play, many of them several times. He is married and has two sons and four grandchildren and has supported Chelsea FC since 1957.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Clare on 27 Dec. 2014
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Pretty superficial. No insight of any kind into the plays themselves and only very minimal discussion of the productions, rehearsal process etc. Essentially gives view into the daily life of an elderly actor. The author has no gift for bringing individuals or events alive on the page and I found it difficult to warm to him as a person. I persevered with this in the hope it would get better but it didn't.
Not recommended.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Saltgrass on 22 Sept. 2011
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I occasionally dip into books mainly biographies of actors as I worked in the business side and two of the leading actors in this company had been clients, this tour being set up after I had left the profession. It brought home how insecure a life the acting profession is at any level, apart from finding and being in work, the level of work offered. David Weston attained a Silver Medal in his initial training and you might have thought would have been destined for higher attainment throughout his life but
no that was not meant to be and this diary is written with warmth, a love for his profession, with the occasional perfectly acceptable barbed remark from an established and respected actor on his fellow thespian - could it be any other way? On a couple of occasions almost thinking he might take over from McKellen due to illness, but it never happened. Including the usual one about agents - which is the end of the profession I have experience in at the 'big name' level - which made me chuckle. That one will never go away. A delightful read which I would recommend and I hope Mr Weston continues to find fulfilling employment.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By richard moore on 9 May 2014
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David Weston is a highly respected professional actor who has spent a lifetime in the industry. Hired to cover ( understudy) Sir Ian McKellen in Trevor Nunn's recent production of King Lear, Mr Weston proves himself to be a very good writer indeed and his incisive diary of the production and it's year long tour, entertains, amuses and informs in equal measure. A must for the bookshelves of theatre fans everywhere.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By P.A.,Fanning on 5 July 2013
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If you like theatre books, you'll find this diary intriguing, irritating, enlightening and full of gossip and waffle. At first David Weston's account of the RSC 'King Lear' tour feels self indulgent and prolix; the meat is hard to find amongst so much trifling gravy. But if you persevere, you get a direct sense of the highs and lows of playing an attendant lord in a major production.

Simply being paid to swell a scene for others to star in is not all beer and skittles, even with the RSC, and, particularly when you are an understudy longing to play the big parts. Much of the commentary is acid to a degree, as the triumphs and disasters of Trevor Nunn's famous production unroll and unravel. Like Polonius, Weston is in many ways (and by his own admission) a 'tedious old fool'; but his insights, particularly on the behaviour of his fellow thespians, are not to be dismissed lightly as week after week of the world tour passes by.

The real star of the piece is Ian McKellen, not only as Lear onstage delivering a relentlessly powerful performance night after night - and even when sick - but displaying a great humanity and warmth, which some of his contemporaries clearly lack.

There is just about enough drama offstage to keep the reader interested; so that you don't just smell the grease paint, you can smell some of the bile as well.
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By Mark Kilmurry on 18 Dec. 2011
Format: Paperback
Anyone interested in theatre, acting, Ian McKellen, King Lear, the trials and tribulations of being a jobing actor - this is a must read. David Weston's simple and effective prose takes us behind the genius of Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen as they embark on a world tour of Shakespeare's greatest human tragedy, King Lear. Weston can be cutting, laugh out loud funny, self depreciating but always entertaining - his years in the rough and tough business of acting shows through in his well chosen accounts. Understudying a star can be a lonely business, ignored by critics, autograph hunters and even members of the audience but David Weston has pride, courage and enough theatre to make this read a noble experience. I couldn't put it down and I live in this world.
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By Pit on 2 Jan. 2014
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Everybody who is interested in nowadays theatre production and its "industrial" conditions, will read Weston's "diary" in few days or as we German (pardon my poor English) say "in einem Rutsch"". You won't know to smile, to cry or to shout out loud at certain moments of your lecture. Of course David Weston is somehow old fashioned, but if you are fair, you'll hardly find something really better, than his/such a point of view. (Over here in Germany we can see for quite some years, where bad artistic taste and misbehaviour will end: in a very poor state of the "art".)
Chapeau to Ian McKellen and the RSC whob (obviously) did not (?) try to sabotage this book. It should be read by every theatrelover.
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This is a marvellously engrossing read, primarily because David's story is so truthful. I have been an itinerant opera singer for over thirty years and I can vouch for a great deal of what he says about what touring can do to otherwise 'normal' and well-balanced grown-ups!!

It is heartening to learn that in addition to being a consummate professional, the great Sir Ian emerges as both normal and well-balanced. David is a wry and witty observer of other people's foibles and has learned a great deal about humanity in the course of his long career. He admits that as one gets older the need to impress others diminishes. Nevertheless, he remains a conscientious performer who still enjoys being an actor and being with actors.
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