It is presumed that around 1604, in between two acclaimed tragedies known as Othello and Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote the unrelentingly brilliant King Lear.
“It is hard, almost impossible to imagine a time when McKellen won’t lead a production”
Jonathan Munby’s adaption of the play, starring Ian McKellen, currently being performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre, once again highlights Shakespeare’s ability to uncomfortably foreground the concept of human frailty. This adds to Munby’s decision to cast McKellen, who in an interview stated that this will most likely be his last big Shakespearean role on stage. This comes as a shock to those like myself who see McKellen as an immortal icon who has played this title role twice before, and other famously huge roles like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Consequently, it is hard, almost impossible to imagine a time when McKellen won’t lead a production and yet, at almost 80 years old, he perfectly matches the age of King Lear, making the devastatingly raw effects of aging more visually potent.
With an elderly monarch, the play focuses on the concept of mortality, questioning at what point old age crosses into madness. It asks us to decide if his erratic and aggressive behaviour warrants our sympathy. This is most evident in the opening of the play – having reached the age of 80 the King brings his nobles together to announce his intention to divide his kingdom, and the responsibility that goes with it, to his three daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia.
It is the manner in which he splits his land that suggests his mental faculties are eroding. Dividing his land according to which daughter loves him the most, and the brandishing of a pair of scissors to cut up a map of his kingdom and the subsequent handing over of flimsy pieces of paper with land on it to his daughter’s husbands adds a pantomimic element, mocking and undermining the importance of relinquishing his power.
“McKellen’s dazzling revival of the title role draws out clear signs of dementia”
Indeed, McKellen’s dazzling revival of the title role draws out clear signs of dementia. The emotional inflections in his voice and his stumbling over and running after words not only speaks of his age, but in conjunction with his volatile behaviour results in angry outbursts that quickly changes to vacant, ghost-like expressions during and after his daughters’ responses. This makes the whole thing more raw and real; we laugh at McKellen’s infantile, quizzical expressions until we realise that he is only half there and that the monarchy and subsequently the stability of the nation has suddenly been undone by age, filial disobedience and infirmity.
The extension of the stage through the centre of the auditorium reduces the size of the audience and enhances the intimacy between those on and off stage. This speaks of Lear’s power and authority as King over his subjects, as does the large Union Jack spread across the set, the oversized self-portrait that hangs centre stage, and the processional singing through the auditorium of the National Anthem with lyrics similar to that of ‘God Save The King’. The imposing wood-panelled, semi-circling set however began to fall away after the storm and became a barer stage meant to represent Dover. I felt that this and the portrait, which looked to be painted in a style evocative of Rembrandt with half of the king’s face in the shade, perfectly foreshadow the disintegration of his mind into nothingness.
“Kirsty Bushell’s vicious Regan was the other character that stole the show”
Interestingly enough Kirsty Bushell’s vicious Regan was the other character that stole the show. Her babyish, juvenile behaviour and her sexual perversity became extremely annoying and lacked the seriousness needed to convince us that her political machinations are in the nation’s best interest. Yet, it is precisely for this reason that she stood out. Her voyeuristic enjoyment of Gloucester’s torture dramatically changed the tone of the play as it brought its darker elements even more to the surface and thus spoke again of human’s frailty in maintaining control both physically and mentally when overcome or driven mad by power. Instead, Bushell’s approach here highlights how easy it is, in any circumstance, to give into insanity.
The only thing that left me disappointed was the promise of making connections to our current political turmoil, both in the UK with Brexit and abroad with Trump. This was suggested through the contemporary setting and costumes and yet nothing seemed to materialise – no emphasis on dictatorship or national crisis, and if there was it always linked back to the madness and frailty of the human mind. Saying this, the performance was incredibly moving and it was a treat to see Ian McKellen at his best.
Featured image courtesy of The Duke of York’s Theatre Facebook Page.