Ian McKellen is potent as ever as he revisits Shakespeare’s doomed monarch
Plenty of great actors don’t even notch up a single ‘King Lear’. Ian McKellen joins the rare ranks of those who’ve decide that for whatever reason what they’d really like to do is to take on the title role of Shakespeare’s cracked tragedy of madness and old age twice. (Glenda Jackson is about to rack up her second one too - perhaps there’s something in the air).
I didn’t see McKellen’s previous outing in the role (in 2007, for the RSC), but the suggestion is that a decade later he wanted to revisit the play in a more intimate setting. To that end this ‘Lear’ – a transfer from Chichester Festival Theatre’s intimate studio – takes place in a specially reconfigured Duke of York’s Theatre, in which a large number of stalls seats have been jettisoned in favour of a room-dividing catwalk that means you’re rarely far from London’s premier theatre knight.
Director Jonathan Munby styles the thing like a slick political thriller, moving at a great clip, full of terse scenes and dramatic blackouts. Paul Wills’s wood panelled set – gorgeously lit by Oliver Fenwick – is vaguely suggestive of the Palace of Westminster, and ailing monarch Lear’s elaborate machinations vis a vis divvying his kingdom up between his three daughters is given the vague air of contemporary politics (there’s just the faintest hint of devolution as he explicitly gives Goneril Scotland).
McKellen is hypnotic as a bullying monarch who uses language like a weapon. He skewers his elder daughters Goneril (Claire Price) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell) with torrents of brutal sarcasm, impaling them on scornful readings of lines that seem harmless in other productions. It’s only as his grasp over language begins to falter – possibly due to dementia, perhaps a stroke – that his older offspring become emboldened to turn upon him.
McKellen is, of course, wonderful: his Lear goes from a vicious, vindictive despot, to a benign, humorous loon, to the gentle, weary man of the desperately poignant close – restored to his faculties, just in time to feel terrible pain. Not to be patronising, but it’s pretty remarkable stuff for a 79-year-old: not only smashing a linguistically dense three-and-a-half hour play every night, but also enduring a lengthy soaking to the bone during the storm sequence.
It’s not the most incisive ‘Lear’ I’ve ever seen - the thrillery stylings fall by the wayside in a less inventive second half. But there’s a terrific cast. McKellen is, of course, the main draw. But there’s great support. Kirsty Bushell is superb as a giggly, unhinged Regan, who becomes palpably more malicious as the reality that she no longer has to do what her dad tells her dawns. And James Corrigan is fun as a hale and hearty take on the scheming villain Edmund – his grinning asides and slight air of ineptitude make the performance a perverse spot of light amidst all the stylish gloom.
McKellen has made much of the fact that the Duke of York’s is where his West End career began, way back in 1964. Hopefully he’s not hinting at retirement just yet. His second ‘Lear’ is another bright spot in a career barely made of anything else – I can only hope we’ll be seeing him again soon.