King Lear at the New London Theatre

Tickets for Ian McKellen’s Lear are changing hands for inordinate sums on ebay. Pay whatever you must. This is a performance not to be missed.

The stage at the New London Theatre mimics the thrust of the Courtyard in Stratford, where this production began. A background of seedy opulence, perhaps a theatre, perhaps a palace in decline, lowers over Christopher Oram’s Russian-flavoured design. This sense of the end of an Imperial era might be caught from the play in repertoire with this Lear, Chekhov’s The Seagull, but it is not too insistently pursued.

The first thing to be said about Trevor Nunn’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company is that it is the clearest version of this play that I have ever seen; the director has put all his energy into revealing rather than decorating the text. The result is an emotional journey of extraordinary power. We are spared nothing; even the hanging of Lear’s Fool (Sylvester McCoy as a diminutive professional comic) is made explicit. Cruelty is the norm in this tough world.

King Lear is a star role and it is starrily filled on this occasion, but McKellen is also part of an ensemble which - after many months playing in this country and on a world tour - works like a well-tempered machine.

Nunn has emphasised Shakespeare’s interest in what is natural, on the nature of human nature. While other directors have found Christian redemption, he sees (and this is expanded on in an illuminating discussion between Nunn and the scholar James Shapiro quoted in the programme) a dismissal of religion which at the time when Shakespeare was writing would have been daring indeed. If everything depends on human relationships, the break down of love and respect within families becomes ever more painful. Goneril and Regan fulfil their expected roles in the opening scene of pomp and pretentiousness; Cordelia, behaving more naturally, is punished for undaughterly behaviour.

Frances Barber makes a lustful, self-serving Goneril who is nevertheless deeply hurt by her father’s horrible curse of barrenness. Monica Dolan’s Regan takes orgasmic pleasure in the blinding of Gloucester. Both, given the chance, behave with their father’s imperiousness. Sweeping about the stage in their gorgeous silk gowns, these two exemplify with fierce accuracy the extremes of filial ingratitude.

Jonathan Hyde’s Kent is noble to the point of ultimate sacrifice for his master and Ben Meyjes’s Edgar is transformed from bookish reclusiveness to fighting machine. It is typical of the production that, although he defeats Edmund in heroic fashion, he has to be dragged away from attacking his opponent’s eyes in recompense for the blinding of the father they share. Edgar becomes Poor Tom so completely that it is possible to believe that his father would not recognise him and William Gaunt’s Gloucester is a fine foil for McKellen.

And at the centre of proceedings is McKellen himself. He begins as a physically frail monarch who has little experience of anything except getting his own way. His dawning understanding of what it is to be human, which leads both to his ability truly to love Romola Garai’s fervent Cordelia and to his journey through madness to enlightenment, provides an emotional rollercoaster for the audience. The few moments of nudity are essential to the expression of his complete vulnerability, a bare forked animal portrayed here by a prince among performers.


©Heather Neill – originally published in What's on Stage, Nov 2007