It’s Gandalf the White, Gandalf the Grey… no, it’s Ian McKellen. That, in itself, is all the excuses you need to secure a ticket to see one of the greatest living actors of our time perform his biggest Shakespearean role. McKellen has already announced that Jonathan Munby’s production is his last time in a Shakespearean role. (And there goes another excuse.) Last year, many saw him first at Chichester Festival as the aging king – loved by many, hated by two.
McKellen is more than familiar with the inner workings of Shakespeare’s play given the gravitas of his experience. Upholding a 60-year stage career, he has performed the roles of Edgar (1974), Kent (1990) and Lear (2007) in the past. This explains why his tremendous performance, now, at the Duke of York’s Theatre is executed with panache and flair. Watching from the grand circle of the intimate space, I noted how McKellen took small, minor liberties with the play by adding on his own words and stage directions, which didn’t muddle the craftsmanship of the Bard. You can see McKellen’s genuine wit in these precious moments. And for all of those big famous lines we know of King Lear McKellen would say them as if he were making a statement about the world. When he said the words ‘when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools’ McKellen didn’t rush to say his next lines. Instead, he left those poignant words floating in the air just as Shakespeare would have wanted the audience to realise them.
Munby’s modern-day production begins with a sparse stage with Kent and Gloucester (Sinead Cusack and Danny Webb) having a private conversation. Suddenly, a majestic procession comes bursting onto the stage with people cheering into song, hailing the king. Then, a union jack unravels and a large oil portrait of McKellen as king takes centre. Everything appears civilised and neatly orchestrated, except for the king who pulls out a pair of scissors and cuts a map of his kingdom into three pieces. All hell breaks loose as he disowns his youngest daughter and strips away the titles of his second in command, Kent.
Munby’s production carefully unwraps the weak from the strong in Lear’s world. It successfully manages to reveal humanity and the deeper intricacies of Shakespeare’s symbolism. As much as the narrative is a great success on its own right, I found it easier to fall in love with its characters more.
Around the time the storm comes, we see McKellen and Lloyd Hutchinson, performing as the king’s fool, completely wet through and through. It’s quite a revelatory scene that says a lot about the stagecraft of the Duke of York’s theatre, which somehow manages to recreate a scene filled with real rain.
Over the course of the three and a half hours, the audience sees a quick descent of the king’s lucid mind as he makes friends with loyal servants and estranged ‘Poor Tom’ (Luke Thompson) whilst seeing imaginary beasts that don’t exist. His former kingdoms slowly disintegrate and more gore, disorder and murdering takes place. The body count goes up to 10 in King Lear, which makes it one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies.
An astonishing cast supports McKellen. Kirsty Bushell and Claire Price are excellent as the villainous sisters. James Corrigan provides a brilliant portrayal of the scheming and ruthless son of Gloucester as Edmund. Anita-Joy Uwajeh is also a great match for her character title as the dutiful daughter, Cordelia, and Danny Webb’s honourable Gloucester gives a sympathetic and noteworthy performance too. That leaves Luke Thompson with the tough job of bringing the athletic and emotionally torn Edgar to life, and he does it so well. In short, with a winning combination including McKellen, Shakespeare and a first-class cast… what more could you want?
King Lear is showing at the Duke of York’s Theatre now until 3 November, 2018. Go to the ATG website to purchases tickets as low as £25 here.
I purchased tickets to review this show.[Header shot: Ian McKellen and Danny Webb. Credit: Johan Persson]