“Furious tempests rise above the seas and sweep over nations. The winds howl and waters rise. Above the maelstrom we hear the cries of vain patriarchs and scheming children. Great armies stand ready to make war. Blind warriors stumble in the encroaching gloom. Greed and overweening ambition proliferate. Wise men are derided as fools and kingdoms tremble on the cusp of dissolution. Welcome to the 21st Century and ‘the time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind'”.
– Excerpt from Fergal Keane’s piece “King Lear and Our Age of Uncertainty”
featured in the official programme.
I know that normally this is where I write poetry. However, after ticking off one of my lifelong dreams last Saturday, I felt compelled to write about it. I saw one of my theatrical heroes, Sir Ian McKellen, live on stage, in the title role in King Lear. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a professional theatre critic (this, I’m sure, will be glaringly apparent to anyone who reads this). I’m just a theatre-geek with a longing to experience those moments on stage that give you that bittersweet lump in your throat. Those moments that leave you wanting to talk of nothing else all night, yet at the same time, you’re transfixed in a hazy wave of speechlessness. I’ve had nearly a week now to process the performance, and I can’t tell you if that is enough time, but I’ve got some things to say.
I fell in love with Ian McKellen when I was 7 year old, after seeing him portray the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Ever since then, I’ve followed his works and admired him from afar. It was only in the past 3 years I was given the opportunity to closer examine his works, when he popped up during my University studies. In our first year, we studied McKellen in ‘Waiting For Godot’, and in my second year we studied him in Lear. He was then somewhat closely linked to my decision to write my dissertation on an aspect of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as he was one of the first visual images that helped shape and mould my love for all things Tolkien.
I digress, yet again I have managed to steer the conversation onto Tolkien, but that’s not what I’m here to write about. I’m here to talk about my experience of “King Lear”, last Saturday, at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London.
The lights fade, and I’m not ashamed to say, my eyes are already filling with a tear or two, at the mere thought of being this close to one of my heroes. The rest of the company sing, as Lear is guided onto the stage. Behind them, a large painting of Lear, crowned and embellished. It was a moment of duplicity, as both audience and cast, were calling to the stage, a true King. The majesty and regalia that was laid upon Lear’s entrance, was extended to Sir Ian, as it seemed an entrance fit for both King and actor.
An interesting mix of Pagan-like worship at the start, with comical displays of religious signalling and prayer. Later, a somewhat too familiar note of political pompousness fills the court of the stage. Act 1 Scene 4 plays out like the after-party at a Conservative Party conference. Tweed, shotguns, and an air of seniority exudes from the stage as Lear takes command of his rowdy rabble of Farage-esque servants. Good theatre, of course, never falters away from the opportunity to hold a mirror up to its audience. This production was no exception, and was unforgiving and unapologetic, in its portrayal of our politically-turbulent times. As Keane rightly states, it ‘powerfully resonates the present tense of raging hurricanes, the dysfunctional Trump family presidency, Brexit, and nuclear stand-off in the Pacific’.
As Lear’s madness infiltrates the stage, and his inability to see the issues at hand becomes more apparent, you cannot help but think of modern farcical characters as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Trump, etc. A connection that became most explicit later on, in Act 4 Scene 6: “Get thee glass eyes, And like a scurvy politician seem, To see the things thou dost not”. A poignant and resonant point, however the perfect delivery resulted in ample laughter from the audience.
Other modern productions I have seen of King Lear have undoubtedly been humorous, but never in the ways that Munby’s production managed to be. Elements of comedy were created from most members of the cast, in places I have never seen comedy injected before. James Corrigan’s portrayal of the villainous Edmund, was quite unlike anything I’d seen attempted in Lear before. The character and the way he played him was reminiscent of the now familiar crime-drama-villain, that modern audiences have come to know and love. I couldn’t help but think of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock, Joseph’s Fiennes Commander in The Handmaid’s Tale, and perhaps more fittingly, Kenneth Branagh’s Iago in Othello. Masterfully done, in a way that made me almost love him too much. I wouldn’t go as far as to say he had me on side, or that I was rooting for him, but Corrigan’s Edmund added an urgency to the stage that left me wanting more.
Photo credit: John Persson.
Another portrayal that really stayed with me was Lloyd Hutchinson’s Fool. It seemed to me, fashioned on a strange yet appealing hybrid of George Fornby (helped along of course with the inclusion of instrumental comedy) and Ronnie Corbett.
I’ve always loved the Fool as I feel it gives so much opportunity, for cast, audience, and artistic directors alike. I found the choice to include a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them seconds of Edmund approaching the Fool with a knife, just as the curtain dropped for the interval, extremely apt and innovative. So much so, that I was hoping for a little follow-up on that! Apart from the often ambiguous line at the finale “My poor fool is hang’d”, I received no closure on that. Then again, this is exactly why I love seeing how different directors and casts interpret the Fool. However, on this occasion, I appreciate the need to perhaps leave this one hanging (no pun intended).
It is quite clear that I am an obvious fan of Sir Ian McKellen and admit that some people may feel this review is biased because of that. However, I truly believe that this production proved that this was a part that Sir Ian simply had to play. McKellen has had a long-term affiliation with the play, due to his numerous appearances in it, albeit as various characters. He writes himself, that ‘perhaps it’s the closer you get to the King’s age, the more telling it becomes’, and whether you subscribe to this philosophy, McKellen’s portrayal certainly makes it believable on stage. He continues to test the emotional range of his audiences. His tenderness in moments of anguish, his palpable frustration at his own wavering psyche, his sharp, cutting, harsh yet comical timing at his vicious quips, is beyond an art.
photo credit: Manuel Harlan
I’ve read some reviews that take a less favourable view on the “stuffiness” of the stage, yet I disagree. Munby’s vision included cinematic elements, strobe lights, sound effects, even occasional slow-motion dance-like sequences to show battle scenes, which I felt suitably fitted with the modern warfare theme that was bubbling under the surface throughout. I felt that there was a fair balance between these cinematic moments (which perhaps are becoming increasingly necessary to appeal to the majority of modern audiences), and moments of genuine “traditional” (though, I must admit I find this notion problematic!) theatre. It didn’t feel ‘too much’, it felt just right.
Overall, Munby’s production was an utter triumph. Amongst those I have already mentioned, Cusack’s compassionate and committed Kent, Bushell’s childlike yet menacing Regan, Thompson’s twitching and erratic Edgar, and Webb’s staunched yet vulnerable Gloucester, all merged together to create an unforgettable, unapologetic, and unforgiving performance of a play, that continues to speak volumes to young and old audiences alike. On the train home, those last lines of King Lear lingered, ever thought-provoking, almost uncomfortably so:
“The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
(Act 5, Scene 3)