Ten years ago we saw Ian McKellen play the title role in King Lear at the New London Theatre, a storming performance which was captured on film and shown on television. Now he’s back for another crack at the complex role in a modernish production directed by Jonathan Munby and fresh from acclaim at the Chichester Festival.
This Lear rules a court dominated by a huge portrait of him in royal and military regalia, and although his map is one of the modern British Isles, his entourage pray to the old gods and seem in thrall of curses and the stars. In a vignette opening, we have seen the old soldier stand, a sort of far ancestor of the Richard III he played in 1991 at the National Theatre, stiff and resolute.
When the old man states his intention to divide his kingdom, there is an exclamation of “what?”, and as each daughter takes the microphone to flatter their way into a coronet, we get the measure of their (Goneril and Regan in any case) duplicity and his weakness for flattery.
Claire Price is ice-cold as the elder daughter, who tolerates her meek husband Albany (Anthony Howell) for his connections as she watches elsewhere for a suitor. In contrast, Kirsty Bushell starts calm enough as Regan, but becomes unhinged to the point of dancing like a dervish in Gloucester’s torture scene, and seems consumed by lust and power as the play progresses.
And finally, Anita-Joy Uwajen’s Cordelia convinces as the honest and loving child who takes up arms following her exile in marriage to the King of France and brings back strength to her ailing father.
Kent, often a difficult role to carry off, is played here by Sinead Cusack, as a Countess who disguises herself as a rough manservant (shades of Twelfth Night and the metamorphosis of Viola to Cesario). She’s a convincing character, having fun with the text and yet portraying the sensitivity of a true friend to the King through female eyes.
As the unfortunate Earl of Gloucester, Danny Webb brings amusement to his astronomical charts, naivete about his sons and their intentions, and eventually pathos in the scenes at Dover with first the disguised Edgar, and then the broken-minded Lear; quite a contrast to his brutal Cornwall of the 2016 Old Vic production.
I always find the Edgar/Edmund plotline to slow down this already lengthy play, and neither Luke Thompson nor James Corrigan really convince, although I liked the camp and vain Oswald of Michael Matus, and the Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson) had his moments here and there.
But this is McKellen’s show, and whether raging against the daughters he feels have discarded his status, authority and dignity, losing his mind and faculties in a raging storm of rain, or presiding over a mock trial with offal and pig’s heads, he keeps your interest, and his final scene is completely, emotionally, heartbreaking, as the loss of his youngest child causes his own life to ebb away, but as it does we see within the dementia-stricken brain the brave soldier – who we saw, isolated, in the battle scene – as well as the anointed ruler who caused all to bend their knees in supplication.
A marvellous performance, and if this is McKellen’s final Shakespeare on the stage, we have been lucky indeed to “see so much” and “live so long”. I found the production a little bit modern, and felt that the religious aspects were forgotten too quickly, but these are “just trifles here”. This production is worth your time, and runs at the Duke of York’s until the second week in November 2018.