Unlike King Lear, Ian McKellen is demonstrating no “infirmity of his age,” with the 79-year-old enjoying a rich vein of theatrical form that shows no sign of letting up. He follows his double act with fellow knight Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot and No-Man’s Land with a Lear of such nuanced, unvarnished, deep understanding that it will exert a cautionary effect on any patriarch willing to take heed.
Transferring to London from its successful run at the Chichester Festival Theatre, director Jonathan Munby’s modern-dress production of King Lear is robust and entertaining, if a little workmanlike. Its lucid presentation of the play’s themes includes a particular frisson for British audiences whose own feelings of nationhood are currently under threat.
To that end, it opens with a pronounced sense of pomp, the court welcoming its king with what might be a pagan spin on a national anthem, Lear resplendent in military dress uniform bedecked with medals, a large portrait of him looming in the background. Union Jacks figure here and elsewhere in this staging, a constant reminder of the nation that Lear now casually snips apart with a pair of scissors, as his older daughters spuriously quantify their love.
And so Shakespeare, the playwright whose finger somehow never leaves his nation’s pulse, seems to be writing for Brexit Britain, a country tipped towards the precipice by ambition, hubris and lies, dodgy negotiations and factions that can’t stop stabbing each other in the back.
In this context, the truth-telling Fool seems even more critical to the king. With his knitted tank top and heavy specs, Lloyd Hutchinson brings to mind both Alan Bennett and the late, immensely popular comedian Eric Morecombe, both northerners whose amiable presence allows the comedy to get away with anything.
Accompanying himself on a ukulele, Hutchinson’s very demeanor — heightened when he and a handkerchief-wearing McKellen appear like soggy vaudevillians in the storm — also plays to a notion of tradition that Lear has threatened to disrupt by tearing up the kingdom. Despite a minimal set and functional costume, Munby and his team have no trouble getting that message across.
At the same time, this aspect of the play is let down by uneven performance. Sinead Cusack is typically excellent as a female Kent, the loyal noble willing to support her king from exile (no reason for the gender switch, other than “why not?”). But the new power brokers are less effective. James Corrigan simply can’t find the malevolence behind the treacherous Edmund’s wisecracks, making his villain a remarkably damp squib; and Kirsty Bushell’s rendition of Regan as an initially flouncy socialite who has drunk too much of the Kool-Aid is daring but so eccentric that it becomes at odds with everything around her.
Whereas the power play eventually becomes wearing (not for the first time with Lear), the tragedy of fathers and their children develops the bigger impact. This is partly due to Danny Webb’s superb Gloucester, the actor giving the less errant but equally betrayed father an authority and steadfastness — even when most vulnerable — that offers an interesting counterpoint to Lear’s mental disarray.
McKellen has played Lear before, for the RSC in 2007, directed by Trevor Nunn. Here he delineates every aspect of the king’s folly and decline with so much delicacy (and no recourse to grandstanding) that the experience has the telling air of familiarity about it.
Considering the delicious way in which the actor can curl his tongue around dialogue, it’s no surprise that this Lear’s vilification of his daughters (as each, in his needy mind, lets him down) is as vicious and unsympathetic as it gets. As he is buffeted between Goneril and Regan, his stuttering ego desperately trying to cling to his retinue, the comeuppance is a joy to behold. As his mind starts to crack — face and diction chillingly collapsing in on themselves — it’s hard to gauge whether Lear is being afflicted by grief, dementia or a stroke, so complete is the disintegration.
And when Lear drags Cordelia’s dead body into his arms like a rag doll, with the distracted physicality of utter loss, the pathos is complete. It may be that Anita-Joy Uwajeh hasn’t been able to make an impact as the one true daughter, and that Munby has omitted to dial down the inherent, unintended comedy of the climactic body count, but the scale of family devastation at the hands of a “foolish fond old man” is keenly felt.
Venue: Duke of York’s Theatre, London
Cast: Ian McKellen, Kirsty Bushell, James Corrigan, Sinéad Cusack, Anthony Howell, Lloyd Hutchinson, Claire Price, Daniel Rabin, Luke Thompson, Anita-Joy Uwajeh, Danny Webb
Director: Jonathan Munby
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set and costume designer: Paul Wills
Lighting designer: Oliver Fenwick
Music and sound designer: Ben Ringham, Max Ringham
Presented by ATG Productions, Chichester Festival Theatre, Gavin Kalin Productions, Glass Half Full Productions