Two years ago Ian McKellen was on the London stage as a glorious Widow Twankey. It is a mark of this great actor’s versatility that this Christmas he appears in the West End as that other foolish parent, King Lear. This is the RSC Lear that sparked such debate when it opened late last spring, now arrived in London. Lear, as we know, weathers badly with age, but time spent in the role has only enriched McKellen’s performance. This is a deeper, subtler, more moving Lear than he gave in Stratford, and Trevor Nunn’s production likewise has gained in maturity and fluency.
It is a production distinguished by energetic intelligence and lucidity: Nunn brings out the symmetries and ironies in the play. And while the storm on the heath commonly rages both outside and within Lear’s mind, Nunn has the whole ornate set disintegrate: as Lear crumbles so do his palace, his kingdom and the perceived order of things. Above all Nunn emphasises that this is a journey away from reliance on divine power. Lear begins as a divinely appointed authority, dispensing blessings on his court. Yet in the savagery that unfolds, the gods remain obstinately silent, and Edmund’s cynical philosophy that we make our own fortune seems nearest the mark. Lear, in his tormented journey from anointed monarch to destitute beggar, must experience that spiritual isolation and find in it the humanity that might defeat cruel self-interest.
McKellen undergoes this rite of passage with immense, quizzical energy. This is a witty Lear, and his spry intelligence makes his journey the more painful as he fights for comprehension at every turn. McKellen brings great resonance, sorrow and genuine bafflement to the question that becomes the cornerstone of this production: “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” And his humility, having passed through the storm, is most moving: his simple joy on recognising Cordelia is deeply affecting.
Irritations and infelicities remain: the doomy orchestral music grates; Edmund (Philip Winchester) is not sly or sexy enough; Gloucester (William Gaunt) lacks pathos. But Ben Meyjes as Edgar and Jonathan Hyde as Kent are very strong. And in a production that uses detail most tellingly, we notice the servants as, aghast and impotent, they watch and wait for cruelty to abate.
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