(Tim Walker’s article appeared in The New European, 8/14; via Pam Green.)
Duke of York’s, London, until Nov 3
***** (Five stars)
Two kings, neither in full possession of their faculties, are currently holding dominion in the West End, and across the Thames, at the National Theatre. One is sublime, and the other is, quite frankly, a ridiculous pretender.
Let us pay court first to Sir Ian McKellen’s King Lear. The actor has played the title role in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy several times before. I saw him in Sir Trevor Nunn’s much-hyped production of 2007, when he offered a performance of dazzling technical accomplishment. I have to say that it left me stone cold.
By contrast, his latest reprisal of the role – which he has hinted may well be his swan-song on stage – has moved me almost to the point of tears. I reacted differently for two reasons. It is, firstly, difficult now not to feel the contemporary resonance of the story of a leader who, by dint of one vain and ill-considered decision, renders asunder his kingdom and then comes to bitterly regret it. The king even stands before a Union flag in the opening scene as he rips up a map of his kingdom and hands out the pieces to his oleaginous but calculating daughters Goneril (Claire Price) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell).
Secondly, Sir Ian – nudging 80 – has grown into the part, both as a man and as an actor. He seems a lot less pre-occupied with the big, hammy gestures and vocal projection that have characterised so much of his stage work. He is finally feeling the role.
When he says “let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven,” you feel the man as much as the character speaking from the heart of his worst fear. A lot of it – and this is always the measure of great theatre – doesn’t feel like acting at all. It is as a consequence almost unbearably painful to watch.
Photo: Manuel Harlan