Cataracts and hurricanoes spout fire in McKellen’s Lear


MAD, blind, brothers in catastrophe: King Lear (Ian McKellen) and the Earl of Gloucester (Danny Webb). Photograph by Manuel Harlan.

IAN MCKELLEN TAKES full and unexpurgated possession of all the complexities of a great king ravaged by the suspicion of daughterly disloyalty and onset and brokenness of dementia in this major and magnificent production of arguably Shakespeare’s most important tragedy, King Lear. Indeed, on so many levels, this role in this work represents the ultimate for a performer in his lifetime, but the National Theatre Live version of the work, performed as it is at Chichester Festival Theatre, will take your breath away, even if you are not a seasoned Shakespeare buff.

For one thing, director Jonathan Munby has not swayed in presenting the full, unedited, unsoftened down version of the work, and it clocks in at a monster four-and-a-half hours. But it’s a chunk of time that whizzes by in the presence of the bard in a way that you almost find incomprehensible. This has to do with the utterly sterling performances of the cast and the difficult tragic rollercoaster of a story of loss and greed, violence and heartbreak that they take you on. It also has to do with the positioning of the work within an abstract context.

While you may not know people vicious and angry enough to take out the eyes of someone they distrust, you probably do know people who would stoop to betray their own flesh and blood in the name of greed or power. And you are not wrapped in the knowledge that this is a 16th century work, but rather than this is about universal human values and vagaries.

But the strength and readability of this theatre experience also has to do with the use of subtitles in the filmed version of the work which hold you fast to the beautiful and often vicious nuances in the language. And while the experience of watching Shakespeare in a darkened movie theatre, with text that you must read and a story that is enormous, is initially overwhelming, by the second half of the work, you’re in the flow of the piece’s energy and drink up every moment.

But more than anything, as you watch this work, you realise that the play is on one level a political engagement with the notion of power. But on another, deeper and more human one, it is about the existential morass of sibling love and hate and the raw and bloody way in which the vagaries of ageing wrench one’s hands from the proverbial steering wheel of life. This work, featuring the family saga of the Lears and that of the Gloucesters running parallel and interjecting with one another, is a ruthless essay on ageing and it’s handled with an unrelenting boldness that doesn’t placate you, but stimulates you into understanding how vulnerable each of us is, in our hubris, in our fragility.

Coupled with extraordinarily honed performances, which diddle intelligently with gender by way of feisty Sinéad Cusack in the role of Kent, the work uses set design and management which belies the intimate space of the theatre in which it is performed. There is a passage around the main proscenium area which fights with logic as it presents time. Mirrors give a sense of depth and strobes and some 2 000 litres of falling water, an understanding of violent weather. Cohesively, the picture is tight and abstract and framed within a contemporary hue. Collectively, it’s a benchmark of an interpretation which you cannot afford to miss.

  • King Lear is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Jonathan Munby. It features a cast headed by Kirsty Bushell, Richard Clews, James Corrigan, Sinéad Cusack, Phil Daniels, John Hastings, Anthony Howell, Jake Mann, Michael Matus, Ian McKellen, Caleb Roberts, Patrick Robinson, Luke Thompson, Anita-Joy Uwajeh and Danny Webb. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it is staged at Chichester Festival Theatre and features creative input by Ben Ringham and Max Ringham (music), Paul Wills (set) and Oliver Fenwick (lighting). Release date, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: October 27 2018, for a very limited season.

5 replies »

  1. So funny. I squirmed, fidgeted and yawned through this, and couldn’t even muster the brain resources to write a review. My least favourite NTLive screening in two years.

  2. I was so fortunate to see Sir Ian McKellan play Lear (my favourite Shakespeare) live in Stratford about 9 years ago. It was orobably one of all time theatrical highlights.
    My husband went along just to keep me company – and because going to this performance was literally why we had travelled all the way to England. He didn’t know the play, and wouldn’t even let me tell him the story before the show. He was enthralled – totally blown away by the power of what we witnessed

    • According to the pre-performance interviews, Sir Ian said he’d give it another bash! Oh my goodness!

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