Towards the latter end of his acting career Ian McKellen has played King Lear twice, in 2007 for the Royal Shakespeare Company and again ten years later at Chichester transferring to the West End. While I would probably have been keener to see the latter, I was intrigued by the possibility of seeing McKellen at all in the role; I assumed that particular ship had sailed but through the wonders of modern technology …. The 2007 RSC version was filmed for television just days after the final performance and with the cast and director intact and it was to this that I turned via streaming service Broadway HD.
I’m never sure with Shakespeare whether a plot precis is helpful. It probably annoys those who already know and may be of no interest to those who don’t. Perhaps this will help:
OK? Now on with the review –
In many ways this is quite a traditional and reverential treatment of what is probably Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy. Director Trevor Nunn opts for a cross between Russia and Ruritania as a setting, the latter most evident in the resplendent costumes of designer Christopher Oram. As there are fairy tale like qualities (soon dispensed with) in the opening scene this seems appropriate but it also has the effect of making the action seem a little remote from the psychological realism with which the play is so often viewed nowadays. It is impossible to see Lear now without reflecting on the subject of mental well being; distancing it, as here, by placing it in an imaginary world may not fully serve the play best in the modern age. For the rest Nunn chooses to play a straight bat which makes the production accessible but doesn’t really break new ground. The one departure is in the hanging of the Fool onstage. While there is textual evidence for this (though that depends on your reading of Lear’s line which could refer to his companion or his daughter) it does jar rather. Other than Lear himself, nearly all the deaths (as opposed to the blood letting and maiming) happen offstage in this play so it provides something of a debating point as to whether the Fool’s demise should be shown quite so directly. I suppose what it does do is explain his sudden disappearance from the drama. That aside Nunn works efficiently through the text and makes sure that all the set pieces (the storm, Gloucester’s blinding, the Edgar/Edmund fight) come across well and will not disappoint the purists. Personally, I found it all just a little bit too safe for a near three hour performance.
Within this traditional structuring, the acting, however, is very well done. McKellen is by turns commanding, querulous, raging, philosophical, funny and terrifying. Like Hamlet, Lear is a character of infinite variety – or should that be Cleopatra? – and it’s probably impossible for any one actor to encompass the totality of the man, but McKellen certainly gives it his best shot. While we are spared the sight of him cavorting naked (as he did on stage but not allowed on American TV) he certainly bares Lear’s soul for intense scrutiny and makes us question not only the character but ourselves. Frances Barber and Monica Dolan are ideal as the two older daughters – in fact they are possibly the best I have seen in laying out just how wicked these women are with no hint of a scruple from either. They get their capriciousness from their father as does Cordelia; Romola Garai is also on fine form as Lear’s youngest and morally strongest offspring. William Gaunt as Gloucester speaks his role with firm control of the language though by the second half I found him starting to get rather one note. Jonathan Hyde as Kent provides a strong centre of support both as actor and character and raises the level of impact generally made in this role. As the Fool Sylvester McCoy is an inspired choice being a natural clown but one who can do pathos as well as the “jokes”. When in 2016 I played the spoons on the RSC stage as Bottom, I had no idea that I had an illustrious predecessor who had got there first; it’s good to be in such a small exclusive club!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan and thanks to Good Tickle Brain for the animation
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