McKellen’s a kingly Lear... and he car­ries Cordelia!

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - FILM - GE­ORGINA BROWN

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

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