There is a poetical poignancy to Sir Ian McKellen returning to the Duke of York’s Theatre to play one of William Shakespeare’s most challenging roles, King Lear. This is the same theatre that McKellen made his professional West End debut in 1964. Now, 54 years later, at the age of 79, he triumphantly returns to the title role of King Lear. McKellen has often said that this would be the final time that he will be performing Shakespeare on stage. Sir Ian McKellen has become a national treasure, appearing in countless plays and films, most notably playing Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. It is no surprise that tickets to King Lear quickly sold out. With audiences desperate to witness what many believe will be McKellen’s final stage performance, this is a rare opportunity to watch a true legend performing Shakespeare live on stage. Having appeared in several iconic Shakespeare plays, such as Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth, McKellen is no stranger to the Bard’s work. Nor is he a stranger to the role of King Lear, having played him at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007 and at the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production in 2017, before it moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre this summer.
Sir Ian McKellen’s stage presence is mesmerising. As expected with his experience, McKellen is a skilled master of Shakespeare’s language. He speaks his dialogue with proficient fluidity and ease. McKellen is truly outstanding as King Lear, an ageing monarch who unwisely banishes his youngest daughter, Cordelia, whilst his other two daughters, Regan and Goneril, plot to overthrow him. Lear slowly slips into a despairing grief which borders on dementia. Watching Ian McKellen play Lear is tragically sad, because we are so fond of him. His performance is beautifully constructed to add a humanity and naturalism as Lear’s faculties start to decline. There are signs of dementia evident from the start, with angry outbursts, unfinished sentences and long pauses in his dialogue. These all culminate in the play’s most poignant scene, King Lear’s breakdown in the storm; a powerful metaphor for “The tempest in my mind”. This scene is perfectly lit, with rain falling, lightning flashing and the characters on stage being soaked to their skin. It creates a memorable scene, so poignant because it is so heart-breaking to watch the powerful monarch reduced to a frail and vulnerable old man. This vulnerability is carried forward for the rest of the play as Lear slowly loses his mind. McKellen’s performance transfixes the audience. His Lear is captivating, yet it is desperately tragic to see him so weak and fragile. It is an astonishing, spellbinding performance which thoroughly deserved the standing ovation he received.
“I fear that I am not in my perfect mind.”
Sometimes when the lead performance is so strong, the rest of the cast cannot compare and the production can be disappointing. Thankfully, the support cast of King Lear were strong enough to make this a fully rounded, excellent production. James Corrigan was delightfully villainous as Edmund, engaging the audience with his soliloquies, and being charming enough to believably woo two sisters. Danny Webb was superb as the blinded Gloucester and Sinéad Cusack played an excellent Kent. However, it was Kirsty Bushell’s frankly frightening portrayal of Regan that was shockingly memorable. Bushell was sublime in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s The Cherry Orchard earlier this year. She was equally as good in King Lear, sadistically squealing with delight as Gloucester’s eyes were being gauged out. Appropriately set in an abattoir, Bushell’s horrifying pleasure made this scene even more brutal and difficult to watch.
King Lear’s inventive production design included a gangway, cutting through the stalls, on which the actors could enter/exit. This added an intimacy often missing from many West End theatres, with the audience being unusually close to the actors. The set effectively switched from regal opulence in the first half, to a minimalist barren stage in the second half, perfectly mirroring Lear’s mental state. Having a minimalist set in the final act, when Lear is at his weakest, meant that the audience’s attention was not diverted and instead could fully empathise with the tragic demise of Lear’s character. This made the final scene all the more heart-breaking, as there was nowhere for McKellen to hide. You could feel that he was putting his heart and soul into his performance, particularly when he sadly finds Cordelia’s dead body. His agonising grief at finding his youngest, and favourite, daughter dead was heart-wrenchingly moving. This must be an incredibly physically, and mentally, demanding role for a 79 year old to play. However, McKellen has a stamina and grace which defies his age. It is a true triumph. If this is his last Shakespearean role on stage, then what a phenomenal way to end such an illustrious stage career.
It was a real honour to get the opportunity to see a true legend performing Shakespeare live on stage. Sir Ian McKellen’s performance as King Lear is an astonishing achievement and will go down in history as one of his most significant roles to date. His Lear was spellbinding and desperately tragic. It was so heart-breaking, it had me in tears.
I strongly urge everyone to get down to their local cinema to watch King Lear when it is broadcast live on 27th September. Tickets are available here.
Photo Credits = Manuel Harlan