Two weeks ago, Eton was honoured to welcome Sir Ian McKellen, one of Britain’s most experienced and esteemed actors, to the Caccia Studio theatre space for a Shakespeare masterclass. Sir Ian has been performing in a season at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, playing the title role in Hamlet and Firs in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. He generously offered to work with 12 young actors, six from Eton, and six from partner school Holyport College, who were asked to prepare one sonnet each in advance.

The workshop started in the afternoon and after the actors had warmed up, Sir Ian gave an introduction that at first glance seemed perfectly ordinary. He later told us that it had in fact been in iambic pentameter, the ten-syllable form of verse that most of Shakespeare’s work is written in. He explained how iambic pentameter worked, and that it is in fact the rhythm we naturally use in everyday speech. It is therefore exceedingly useful for an actor.

In 90 minutes, Sir Ian explored four actors’ sonnets, two from Eton and two from Holyport. We learned about where to place the emphasis within a line (at the end), how to perform metaphors (visualise them), the process of analysing Shakespeare for performance, and lots more. With these techniques, sonnets (which had previously felt familiar and over-exposed, including Sonnet 18) were born again. Indeed, once their time with Sir Ian had finished each actor seemed to be inventing Shakespeare’s sonnets of their own accord, making their performances all the more moving.

We are deeply grateful to Sir Ian for his inspiring work with our actors and hope to see him on stage again soon.