McKellen’s a kingly Lear... and he carries Cordelia!
It’s often said that by the time you are old enough to play Shakespeare’s King Lear, you’re past it. Recently, Sir Antony Sher needed a cart to carry the body of his beloved daughter Cordelia. Not Sir Ian McKellen.
A decade ago he was magnificent in Sir Trevor Nunn’s gorgeously extravagant if overembellished Royal Shakespeare Company production. Now aged 78, he’s an older if no wiser Lear in Jonathan Munby’s clear, thoughtful, terrifically well-paced revival. Hair thinner and greyer, he’s plumper but still every inch the king, and then some. His physical strength – essential in this role – seems undiminished as he hauls the body of Cordelia on his back. But what makes this production special is the intimate scale of the space, which allows McKellen’s Lear to be more conversational, nuanced, profoundly felt and utterly compelling.
Moreover, with his clothes on – much was made of him dropping his trousers in Nunn’s storm scene – he movingly portrays the metaphorical stripping down of a man who had believed he was superhuman and now, oh so agonisingly, discovers his mortality and realises he is just a ‘poor bare forked animal’. In a very moving moment he puts his own coat around the shoulders of the trembling, naked wretch, Edgar.
The court is deftly conjured by a circular red carpet, on to which Lear marches in military dress, his medals flashing. His invitation to his daughters to bid for their portion of his kingdom when he announces his retirement is staged like a vulgar after-dinner game, with each on display behind a microphone as he chops up a map of Britain with scissors. One can see why his daughters are less than thrilled to host his household of hooray-Henry knights and squires, all singing drinking songs and leaving dirty footprints everywhere.
Following the storm, the circle
is a blanched white, the stage bare but for a lone tree, a Beckettian nod to the nihilism that has taken over. Indeed, most of Munby’s ideas make perfect sense, such as the excellent Sinéad Cusack playing Lear’s loyal Kent as a countess instead of a count (why not?). And while the jauntiness of Phil Daniels’s banjo-playing Fool with Eric Morecambe specs stifles some of the pathos of the part, it highlights his bitter irony.
Kirsty Bushell’s raunchy Regan gets stuck on one note, though her whoop of sexual ecstasy at the brutal blinding of Gloucester (in an abattoir, using a meat hook) horribly suggests that she finds violence a huge turn-on. Tamara Lawrance’s Cordelia struggles to look anything but tough in army camouflage kit. And if there’s no obvious reason why Edmund decides to bump off the Fool, it underlines his casual cruelty. Dervla Kirwan’s sometimes glowing, sometimes glacial, always grand Goneril makes her evil more interesting than her sister Regan’s, and the decency and personal integrity of Dominic Mafham’s Duke of Albany shines with a revelatory light in this dark world. Impressive.
Left: Regan (Kirsty Bushell) with a blinded Gloucester (Danny Webb)
Left: Sir Ian McKellen as Lear and Danny Webb as Gloucester. Above: Phil Daniels as the Fool