Sir Ian does Lear…again!
In every great actors life there comes a time when they want to slow down and relax into the grandfatherly bit parts of their twilight years. However, before a leading man and serious actor can be allowed to retire, there is a final rite they must perform: they must do Lear.
Of course, Sir Ian McKellen has been “doing Lear” to great acclaim (and more than a little nudity) for more than 10 years, on-and-off. This is more than just his swansong – at this point, it’s almost his party piece, but this is the first time it’s been marketed to the press as the great actor’s “last hurrah“. And so, sweeping onto the West End stage at the Duke of York Theatre, comes one of the top-dollar tickets of the season.
McKellen does King Lear! No serious theatre-goer worth their salt could pass up such an opportunity, and why would you not want to see the great man stomp the boards one last time..
Having seen this production early in its run, I can’t help but hope this isn’t the last time we see him. Not because he’s so great in this production (though he does carry it admirably), but because this production is so thoroughly uninspired as to leave the audience wondering why Lear is put on at all.
It is a fundamentally silly play, like so many of the Shakespearean tragedies, and it takes a good ensemble to get the audience over the various narrative humps we need to get past to enjoy the performances, and sadly this production doesn’t seem to try.
The Paul Wills designed stage and costuming is cribbed from Richard Loncraine’s iconic McKellen vehicle, Richard III, but without any of that fantastic production’s follow-through. Drawing an analogy between Richard’s grasping and the rise of 20th Century fascism was a brilliant interpretation that brings that play and its themes into renewed focus.
Here, while the look is similar, the costumes simply feel like they were the most affordable in the “generic performance” bin. Neither modern, nor period. Neither particularly regal, nor anything else. They’re a timeless hodgepodge that leaves the cast playing dress-ups until the climactic sequence when the military attire is suddenly very modern, yet no more inspired, worn by background extras on any number of BBC serials.
Jonathan Munby’s direction may have put a thrust stage down the middle of the theatre, but the Duke of York’s deeply cantilevered Grand Circle means that all performance is restricted to the stage’s traditional procenium – otherwise, two thirds of the (over)-paying audience would miss the action. So even this “unique feature” is reduced to being a mere catwalk for the actors to rapidly tramp up and down, but never to perform upon.
And then there are the rest of the performances that Munby elicits.
McKellen’s Lear here is declining; the twinges of senility are there from the very beginning, played with wrenching subtlety. Unlike his direction under Trevor Nunn, this is not a king at the peak of his powers bizarrely electing to divvy up his kingdom: this is a once great king, who needs to step aside.
Sinéad Cusack’s Kent is also a stand-out performance. This is a great example of “why not” cast against the traditional gender. Of course, had the costuming been more traditional, this casting could have been eye-catching. Perhaps this is the one good thing to come from the timeless, place-less melange Munby’s has concocted.
The parallel tragic character of the piece – Gloucester – is also admirably played by Danny Webb, but that’s where the positively notable performances end.
Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Cordelia is certainly beautiful. However, like so many Shakespearean tragic heroines, she’s given very little to work with and Uwajeh capitalises on none of it. Lear’s tragic misunderstanding of her honesty in the opening scene is…not really much of a bother. Cordelia is hardly set-up as the only daughter to really love Lear, just the only one not quick-witted enough to oversell it.
This is, of course, a core problem with the play, but having failed to get over the hurdle in the opening scene, the whole heart of the final act is left hollow. We won’t buy Lear’s complete tragedy if we don’t believe the complete love between him and his youngest daughter.
Meanwhile, for the rest of the 3.5 hour running time, we’re left with a cast of pantomime villains.
Claire Price’s Goneril looks like she stepped off the set of Borgen and would be at home in any Prime Minister’s office, if only the character had something other than tepid whinging to do.
James Corrigan as Edmund does everything he can to suck all the juiciest marrow from each, Iago-lite line; but Mark Rylance is just over the river, doing Iago, reminding us all who Shakespeare’s most fun villain really is!
And Kirsty Bushell as Regan. The simpering villainy dial is set to 8 from the beginning, ratcheting up quickly to 11. In the same way that we’re not convinced of Cordelia’s great love for her father at the outset, Regan (and Goneril to slightly lesser extent) is unable to conceal her selfishness, leaving her betrayal of her father (and everyone else) to be a boringly foregone conclusion. The decision to play her as a manic, masochistic nut-job doesn’t make her (half-step) descent into villainy any more interesting to watch.
I hope this is not the last time we get to see Sir Ian live on stage. His recent rounds with Waiting for Godot and various Pinters prove that he’s still one of the great actors.
He’s still so much better than a by-the-numbers production.
In spite of all this, if you’re still determined to see this production, it will run at the Duke of York’s Theatre until November 3rd, 2018.
Othello continues its run at The Globe until October 13th.
But if you really need to scratch that McKellen/Shakespeare itch, go back and revel in Richard III. Twenty-three years young. Still one of the very best Shakespearean adaptations ever made.
Agree? Disagree? Seen any or all of the above productions? Let us know what you thought in the comments below.