King Lear (Duke of York’s)

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.

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Ian McKellen (Lear)

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.

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Anita-Joy Uwajen (Cordelia), Sinead Cusack (Kent), Ian McKellen (Lear)

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.

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Ian McKellen (Lear) and Danny Webb (Gloucester)

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.

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Ian McKellen (Lear)

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.

Buy the text of King Lear from Amazon UK

Buy the DVD of the New London theatre production from Amazon UK

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King Lear (Barbican)

My second Lear of this month is rather more traditional and definitely much safer than the one over at the Old Vic.

Another collaboration from RSC power couple Antony Sher and Gregory Doran, this Lear is opulent, regal, but, except for David Troughton’s magnificent Gloucester and Natalie Simpson’s sweet Cordelia, the play is strangely unmoving.

A very lengthy opening scene has the displaced and homeless sitting on the stage until they are rudely scattered ready for the entrance of the king, a Sher hunched up and swathed in furs, with a rasping voice.  He appears behind glass which is slowly lowered to reveal the full majesty.

He gives away his kingdom to the empty flattery of his daughters, who clearly loathe him (later, each will recoil from his offered embrace), and in a first display of a mind in disorder, disowns his ‘joy’, Cordelia, cast adrift in her bridal gown to be taken up by a sympathetic King of France.

Antony Byrne portrays Kent and in disguise, particularly, as a tattooed skinhead, he excels, and his final scene is well played.  Graham Turner plays a Fool first confident, funny and chatty, but eventually bewildered in the eye of the storm.  We do not see him in the second half, as is usual, but we are concerned for his survival.

As the brothers who war due to the one’s legitimacy and the other’s bastardy, Paapa Essiedu was not convincing for me due to his total sarcasm for all around him and his throwaway asides; better was Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar who went from a bookish fop through impersonation as Poor Tom to sword-wielding champion with ease.

The relationship between Regan (Kelly Williams) and Cornwall (James Clyde) is presented very much as one orchestrated by her (when he is mortally wounded and asks for her hand, she coldly walks away without a glance).  I much preferred Nia Gwynne’s Goneril, a lady with pure ice in her veins.

The eye-gouging scene may be misjudged – I had trouble hearing lines spoken within the perspex box from the stalls, so I feel for the gallery – but the effect is probably on a par with the thrown eyeball over at the Old Vic.

Where this production misses for me is the final mental disintegration of Lear.  I was not moved either by his recognition of Cordelia or his ‘howl, howl’ at her death.  And I know Sher has the emotional pull in other roles (his superb Willy Loman, for example, so this was a surprise).

I am glad to have had the opportunity to see both London Lears at such close proximity, and both have much to recommend them.  So see both if you can, but you have to move quick to see Glenda Jackson in the role (to December 3rd).

The RSC King Lear continues at the Barbican until December 23rd.

King Lear (Old Vic)

November 2016 will be topped and tailed for me by two new productions of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, and this first one is a rather significant one, as it represents the return to the stage of Glenda Jackson after her quarter of a century career change to represent Hampstead and Highgate (later Kilburn) in Parliament.

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The Old Vic is not the most obvious venue for a modern dress, Brechtian, Lear, with its Victorian proscenium – however, director Deborah Warner and her co-designer Jean Kalman have created a staging which at first looks as if might use the whole stage space (it is fully opened out and set with movable walls, screens, and plastic chairs on which some of the cast sit and chat before the action starts).  In fact most scenes are staged on the front of the stage, which projects into the auditorium necessitating the removal of the first few rows of the stalls.

So, a minimal set and staging (and each scene number projected on to the screens or on top of the proscenium – perhaps to assist those new to the play to stay engaged throughout its mammoth running time; 3 hrs 35 on the final preview on Thursday), and modern costumes.  Jane Horrocks’ toxic Regan wears killer black heels; Rhys Ifans’ Fool is dressed as Superman and in one scene dons a scary clown’s mask; Karl Johnson’s Gloucester wears jeans.

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Glenda Jackson plays the King, and although there is no gender impersonation here, she dons androgynous blacks and reds and has her hair in a short and severe style.  Her authority effortlessly commands the stage in her first appearance, in which her love for Morfydd Clark’s sweet Cordelia (they arrive hand in hand) curdles so quickly to rage you almost have sympathy for Regan and Goneril (a steely Celia Imrie), having to cope with so changeable and terrifying a parent.  She displays a sarcastic vein of humour too, in the ‘crawl towards death’ line, and later, in her interplay with the Fool’ and she handles the storm scenes well in flowing shirt and long socks, in despairing, shattered senility.

Johnson’s Gloucester elicits sympathy as he appears less of a statesman and more of a meddling Polonius-type, and although some of the audience seemed to find his ‘I have no eyes’ line amusing, it was deeply felt and beautifully delivered.  As the bad son, Edmond, Simon Manyonda first appears doing an exhausting workout with skipping rope and press-ups, before dismissing his doting brother Edgar by mooning the audience.  He is a studious and serious traitor, colluding with those watching from the dark and mocking the two daughters who, barren and frigid in their respective marriages, salivate over him.

Edgar, played by Harry Melling, is good in the Poor Tom scenes (curiously by the time we get to the ‘naked fellow’ lines he is clothed, but he does disrobe completely earlier on), although he overdoes the speech stating his father’s ‘heart burst’, striking his chest repeatedly in the echo of a heartbeat.  I note he is one of the Troughton acting family as well as a Harry Potter alumnus, and can see some of his family potential (his uncle David is soon over at the Barbican in the second November Lear I mentioned earlier, playing Gloucester).

Rounding out the cast are Danny Webb as a psychotic Cornwall, all smiles before the steel temper strikes (the blinding of Gloucester is done well, with suggestive shadows and piercing Regan scream); William Chubb as a sympathetic Albany, trapped in a marriage which has decayed for years; Gary Sefton as an ingratiating Oswald; and Sargon Yelda as a strangely young and vital Kent.   The scene where the King of France accepts a dowerless Cordelia is somewhat spoilt by his comic accent, but that’s a small criticism.

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This is Glenda Jackson’s moment, though, and she surely shines.  Her interplay with her fellow cast is convincing – in particular with Ifans’ Fool, Yelda’s disguised Kent (and earlier, in his banishment scene), and her daughters.  Her ‘howl, howl’ as she is dragged in on a carpet with her deceased young daughter is heart-rending, and her refusal of Gloucester’s request to kiss her hand ‘let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality’ is nicely done, as is her recognition of him despite her previous staggering madness with leafed crown.

A nod, too, for the design of the storm, with projections, sound, and large black plastic sheet simply shaken.  The effect is spectacular.

Photos by Manuel Harlan.  King Lear runs at the Old Vic until the 3rd December.  Book tickets at http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2016/king-lear/.

First Encounter: King Lear, 2012 – ★★★½

The Royal Shakespeare Company developed this truncated version of King Lear for young audiences through their education programme, and this version was taped in New York.

Running just seventy-eight minutes and starring Paul Copley as the King, this is set over a week at Christmas, with Lear opening his presents at court on Christmas Day and dividing his kingdom between his cruel daughters while banishing the one most true to him, and reaching the end of the play on New Year’s Eve.

Although the running time is short, the main elements of the play are there, although an audience may struggle to find emotional engagement.

There are some interesting parallels in costume – when we first see Edmund he is dressed as the red-nosed reindeer, the same as the Fool will be later – however, both Kent and the Fool have their parts much reduced, and although the blinding of Gloucester survives along with Edgar’s masquerade as ‘poor Tom’ (wearing clothes retrieved from the drains), it doesn’t have the same power as it might in a full-length version.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

King Lear (National Theatre) review

This much-anticipated production by Sam Mendes of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic play stars the actor Simon Russell Beale, who at fifty-three may be on the younger side of Lears, but who is undoubtedly one of our most gifted classical actors.

Mendes and Russell Beale have worked together on numerous occasions before (notably in ‘Othello’ (SRB as Iago) and The Tempest (a startling Ariel opposite an imposing Alec McCowan’s Prospero) so there must almost be a shorthand of technique between them as they created this excellent version of what becomes in their hands the story of a military dictator who is pitched into dementia by the harsh treatment of his two eldest daughters (Goneril, played here by Kate Fleetwood; Regan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and the slow burn of guilt following the banishment of his youngest ‘jewel’ Cordelia (Olivia Vinall).

Now and again the production may stray into a flashy cinematic flourish (the rising ramp Lear and his Fool walk on, the out of character rage from Lear leading directly to the demise of the gentle Fool (Adrian Scarborough, very good indeed)) but its strength is in the performances, notably that of Russell Beale, from his strutting yet tiring despot of Act One through to his hopeless flower carrying fractured spirit of the scenes immediately following the interval.

As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer is very touching in the scenes where he is reconciled with his wronged son Edgar (Tom Brooke), albeit without knowing it.  Brooke himself makes an excellent Edgar, taking the references to the ‘naked fellow’ literally in his first appearance as ‘Poor Mad Tom’, but keeping the dignity of the exiled gentleman.  Rounding out the cast of principals is Sam Troughton as an Edmund who has expressive eyes and a knowing smirk, especially once he has the attention of both the wicked sisters.

This is not a perfect Lear, nor the best I have seen, although Russell Beale does not disappoint (unlike some reviewers I do not see his small stature as a problem, and his interchange with Cordelia when they are reconciled is deeply moving, as it should be, but often is not) and the modern setting makes us think of overthrown dictators and aged rulers.  Unlike the Almeida production of two years ago this production does not imply incest between Lear and his children, although the sisters remain highly sexed and this remains their eventual undoing, two harpies destroyed by jealousy.

All in all, a triumph, with Stanley Townsend’s bruiser of a Kent also worth a mention.  This is a Lear which does not pull its punches, and sometimes it veers into violence which seems to jar with everything that has gone before – but yet, a despot who has towering statues of himself across the city may, if his eyes are pecked at long enough, might simply cease being able to see clearly and take responsibility for his own actions?  Only the return of his beloved youngest child can bring Lear back to a semblance of sanity, but too late.

Looking at King Lear and its variants

In this post I want to look at film, television and video versions of King Lear, whether straight adaptations with Shakespeare text, or modern stories based on the characters or situations in the play.

In 1909 an American silent short was filmed by J Stuart Blackton and William Ranous (who also played the lead), for the Vitagraph company.  It only exists today in fragments.  Ranous (1857-1915) also appeared in other Shakespeare adaptations – Macbeth, Julius Caesar, but was perhaps more suited to the role of the ageing monarch displaced from his kingdom.

Continue reading “Looking at King Lear and its variants”

King Lear (Almeida Theatre)

Over a year ago I booked for the latest in a long line of theatrical Lears, this time with Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce, who has been a favourite of mine since my schooldays when the film Brazil was released. So I was intrigued to see how he would do in the greatest of all mature Shakespearian roles, and how Michael Attenborough’s production would present the story of betrayal, ageing, and intrigue.

In a sparse set with a trapdoor, a handful of entrances, and some magic dust in the form of the lightning storm which plagues Lear and his followers, all our attention is on the performers, and as the Almeida is a small space any audience member is in the thick of the action, which might be something to be aware of if you are squeamish in any way about fake blood and eye gouging!

As well as Pryce as lead name in the cast, his three daughters are played by Zoe Waites (Goneril), Jenny Jules (Regan), and Phoebe Fox (Cordelia). As Cordelia is a small role in comparison to her sisters, whether or not she is memorable is squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing her – and although Fox makes the early map scene vibrant with her spitting anger and contempt for her sisters, she becomes less interesting once she becomes the Queen of France. Waites is a terrific Goneril, a true serpent bitch, while Jules plays Regan as – to my eyes – a damaged daughter, perhaps abused in some way by her doting father? Because there is a definite hint of incestuous attraction here, which makes a viewer uncomfortable and takes away a bit of sympathy from our wronged king. If this line of plot is to be taken into account, this man deserves to have the doors closed upon him.

Edmund (Kieran Bew) is less successful at his characterisation than Edgar (Richard Goulding), while Clive Wood makes an excellent Earl of Gloucester. As the exiled, disguised Kent, Ian Gelder is good, but he doesn’t dispel memories long held of another Kent for the National Theatre, Ian McKellen (himself one of two superb Lears I have seen, the other being Tom Courtenay). The others in the cast are less important, and with a bit of doubling up all bases are covered.

So what of Jonathan Pryce’s Lear? His is one of frustration and black comedy rather than tragic dementia, although the ‘I believe this lady to be my child’ bit was moving, as was the sequence with the dead Cordelia. Scenes with the Fool were well done, and the opening map and banishing of Cordelia/Kent scene had all the might of majesty the role requires. So I wasn’t disappointed, and I recommend this production to Shakespeare beginners and aficianados alike.

(One word for the staff member in the circle, though – paying customers don’t want to hear creaky seats throughout, ok?).