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
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.