Theatre 2018 – King Lear, Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Saturday, September 29th 2018 – King Lear, Duke of York’s Theatre, London

We swore after our 2016 “Year of Lear”, having seen Michael Pennington, Sir Anthony Sher and Dame Glenda Jackson all give superb if wildly different interpretations of the role, that we would spare ourselves the gloom of it for a while and would perhaps concentrate on other plays. But then the announcement came through that Sir Ian McKellen was going to play the part again, eleven years after his last stint in the part at the RSC. Our resolve cracked and tickets were duly purchased. And I am so glad they were.

The run is a long one (July through to November), coming in as a transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre, and it has been hinted that it may be McKellen’s last major Shakespearean outing, but he still gives it full throttle, even on a matinee afternoon when he’s going to have to do the whole thing twice with just a short break in between. He’s clearly given the role considerable thought since he last played it, and here he seems to emphasize the mental frailty and confusion of the old man as his situation deteriorates, along with an initial idiotic capriciousness that is what kicks off the whole sorry tragedy in the first place. His performance was rivetting from the off, including the petulant toddler-like mood that takes him when his daughters won’t allow him the retinue he feels is his due when he stays with them, and the distress and confusion when it all comes off the rails. Like the Jackson performance two year’s ago, this is an equally strong and equally extraordinary performance, from a man nudging his 80th birthday. I’d be pleased to be able to remember a single scene; he’s on stage for a great deal of the three and a half hours and never put a foot wrong.

The setting is minimal with a “turntable” in the centre, which is used to great effect in the storm scene, where it is covered in some material that absorbs the downpour inflicted on the actors. I must admit I didn’t envy McKellen, standing there getting drenched by an awful lot of water. I just hope it wasn’t cold; it certainly brought the wildness of the situation home to the audience. And afterwards the stagehands scooped up the cover and dragged it all away…

The Duke of York’s Theatre has been modified in other ways too, which means less seats but the audience is now much closer to the action than they would have been normally. This allows the cast to speak rather than project, and it works extremely well in this context. The production is resolutely modern dress, which is really not new because it seems every other run is done that way. There are those who get very sniffy about modern-dress Shakespeare and insist it should be done in “period costume”. To them I say “What period? The one when it was written? The one in which it is set? What the hell difference would it make? How would most of you even know if the costumes were authentic or not?”

Actually, I suspect those same people will throw a fit over some of the supporting casting decisions too, with Kent played as the Duchess of Kent by Sinead Cusack, and Cordelia (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) not being white. To them, I say it doesn’t matter because both performances worked, with a minor reservation about Uwajeh’s delivery of iambic pentameter in a couple of scenes feeling a bit stilted (she seemed to be stopping at the end of the lines rather than at the more natural punctuation points, but I’m putting that down to age and experience, neither of which she currently has as a recent graduate, but which she will gain). Cusack was quietly brilliant, the pain of seeing her king destroy himself and in effect his country was palpable, and her steely determination to support Lear, in whatever way she could, also came across strongly.

The other two standout performances for me came from Kirsty Bushell as Regan, and from Danny Webb as Gloucester. This is not to say that the others were not good, just that they absolutely shone, especially Bushell, who plays Regan as a nasty psychopath with some serious Daddy issues, her squealing delight at the particularly nasty blinding of Gloucester bordering on orgasmic, and her relationship with her sister as poisonous as could be. I notice one of the critics describes her as “unhinged”, which I think pretty much nails it. It’s quite a piece of acting, and is well matched by Webb’s disgust at the sisters when he realises they are more than happy to have the old King out of both their houses, and have in effect turned against their own father for personal greed and gain. His despair in the cliff-edge scene is especially well done, in a scene that can end up being mawkish if handled badly.

If I have reservations, it is with Lloyd Hutchinson’s turn as the Fool, largely because his singing and ukulele playing makes the words impossible to understand. And this is Shakespeare. If there’s one thing I want, it’s to be able to hear the words! Ultimately, though, if you are able to get a ticket and go and see this, I would urge you to do so. You’ll kick yourself if you don’t.

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