King Lear @ New London Theatre, London

cast list
Ben Addis
Frances Barber
Adam Booth
Zoe Boyle
Russell Byrne
Naomi Capron
Monica Dolan
Romola Garai
William Gaunt
Richard Goulding
Julian Harries
John Heffernan
Peter Hinton
Jonathan Hyde
Melanie Jessop
Gerald Kyd
Seymour Matthews
Sylvester McCoy
Ian McKellen
Ben Meyjes
David Weston
Guy Williams
Philip Winchester

directed by
Trevor Nunn
King Lear is a play that Trevor Nunn seems to have a way with. When he was still running the RSC in 1976, he gave us a highly memorable production, with Donald Sinden as the king, and now this latest is also likely to keep people talking for years. Ian McKellen gives the finest performance I’ve seen from him in over 30 years of stage work.

For an actor who often appears grandstanding and overly-technical, McKellen’s Lear is a portrayal of astonishing depth and subtlety. He is a raw, bleeding slab of meat, wholly convincing and very moving. A thin veneer of royalty cruelly whipped away leaves us with the thing itself, quite literally a man in his naked state shorn of any pretence of dignity. Beginning as a foolish, fond and rather nasty old man, he swoops rapidly through the abyssal zone of insanity and despair, cracking and splintering just as the set does, and ending as a broken but wiser human being.

From a superbly dramatic opening to the accompaniment of thunderous organ music, the production is compellingly watchable with many excellent performances. William Gaunt’s gentle Gloucester plunges if anything more markedly than Lear, an urbane and trusting courtier violently reduced to a pitiful state; the two old men in white sitting centrestage, one sobbing his heart out, the other off in a haze of delusional fancy is a scalding image.

Monica Dolan’s Regan shrieks with orgasmic triumph as Gloucester’s eyes are put out, she and Frances Barber’s Goneril teetering a little too near to ugly sisterhood at times, but they both pull back in time to keep their characters believable. Barber’s upset at Lear’s torrent of abuse is a great touch and her final breakdown at the death of Edmund is totally convincing, plucking her from the seemingly unstoppable whirlpool of malevolence that has swept the sisters beyond the bounds of human decency.

Jonathan Hyde is an excellent Kent and Guy Williams’ Cornwall is subtly evil by necessity. Sylvester McCoy’s comedically-adept fool is a characterisation nicely evolved from that of Michael Williams in Nunn’s 1970s production, a burned out music-hall comic who doesn’t quite overcome the irritant factor in his inappropriate interjections, as his master falls apart and is in need of more soothing counsel.

Of the youngest generation, Romola Garai’s Cordelia is pretty but whiny and Philip Winchester doesn’t fully relish Edmund’s Iago-like maliciousness, while Ben Meyjes impresses more as a weird and other-wordly Mad Tom than as the heroic rescuer of a world returning to sanity. If these are weaknesses, they don’t take much away from a solid and well-integrated piece of ensemble playing.

The pace does stumble in patches towards the end of the long evening, but that’s largely down to the play’s structure. What Nunn’s production does more than anything is bring tremendous clarity to this most operatic of Shakespeare’s plays. From a director who has failed to impress in recent years, this is a glorious return to his best form.

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