KING Lear is a magnificent play by William Shakespeare, embracing dollops of treachery, vanity, torture and murder over three riveting hours.
But the current production, playing at Duke of York’s Theatre in London, has an added layer of brilliance. Step forward Ian McKellen, a Lear to end all King Lears. Vain, haughty, physically fragile, softly spoken and ultimately riven with dementia. Sodden to the core as he and the Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson) encounter a violent storm.
No one plays Lear like McKellen. No one ever will. It is a performance that should be cherished and filmed so that in years to come future generations can marvel at his every word and step.
Although the play has a huge talented cast – the likes of Sinead Cusack (Kent) and Danny Webb (a quite brilliant Gloucester as he is crudely blinded by Daniel Rabin’s Cornwall) – it is McKellen who steals all the plaudits. It is his King Lear, nobody else’s, and the cast know it and the audience reinforce the message. At the end the standing ovation is for McKellen – and for McKellen alone.
Director Jonathan Munby has put together a pulsating production, aided with clever set design by Paul Wills who divides the stalls with a Shakespearean catwalk, down or up which stride many of the cast (including McKellen).
The opening scene, where youngest daughter Cordelia (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) is banished to France for refusing to confirm her love for King Lear, is set in a wood panelled room. Troops wear army fatigues throughout and are armed with guns. At the end King Lear ends up on a hospital drip. Modern touches that some may find distracting.
While this King Lear is very much McKellen’s vehicle, there are some other outstanding performances. Kirsty Bushell’s Regan is pure evil. She is manipulative, encourages Cornwall to rip out Gloucester’s eyes (and laps it up as if Cornwall is doing no wrong) and knows how to use her sexuality to achieve her objectives. No man is safe within her line of sight as the scheming Edmund (James Corrigan) finds out.
Claire Price’s Goneril is another evil piece of work – albeit a notch below in the evil stakes – as she also seeks the carnal joys that Edmund is all too willing to hand out like confetti. Her husband Albany (Anthony Howell) remains stoic until the end. Cusack is terrific as Kent, at one time suspended in a cage above the stage. Corrigan’s Edmund is a horribly duplicitous individual while Rabin’s Cornwall would be great material for a psychiatrist.
How McKellen manages to perform at his outstanding level at such an age (a youthful 79)remains a mystery of the modern world. As lovers of art, we should enjoy it while we can.
King Lear runs until November 3. Catch it if you can and watch greatness in action. Even if it means taking out a personal loan to get a ticket.
Non-lovers of expensive theatre or personal loans can watch a live broadcast at selected cinemas on September 27.