Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 3 November 2018
You need not be aged – or even a man – to be a memorable Lear. But there is an intense and concentrated emotion to it when a great actor in the last decades of life takes on the role. Derek Jacobi, in Michael Grandage’s Donmar production, threw me seriously off-balance. Now Ian McKellen, even older (80 near year) is a more military, striding figure; but in dissolution equally wrenching. The dignity of his late gentleness, “not in my perfect mind” stops the heart; so does his moment of pity for the long-neglected poor (who gather, silent ghosts, behind him in the storm).
For this third time in the role we are told that he deliberately chose to play it in the intimacy of Chichester’s Minerva last year; here in the West End a reconfiguring and reduction of the Duke of York’s (with a central walkway and false wall) maintains much of that atmosphere.
Jonathan Munby’s production has military uniforms and modern dress, but the theme of upward appeal to unseen gods, always strong in the text, is signalled by the Latin chant in the first scene and an almost nervous flinging up of hands by court officials at relevant lines; in Lear himself it gives pathos to the sense that his growing mental fragility is a malignity sent down from above by the gods who toy with all frail humans, so his own flaws of temper and self-knowledge are only feeding it.
His sudden spurt of rage at Cordelia is wholly credible, and her unscripted gasp of “What?” perfect. As in the Grandage production, Cordelia is of black heritage, a dignified and touching Anita-Joy Uwajeh: far from being “colourblind” it adds a sense that this most-loved child came from a second, southern wife, perhaps after the chillier mother of Goneril and Regan. Since we have already heard Gloucester joshing about Edmund and the “sport at his making”, this small detail adds to the sense of intimate family tragedy, joys and dangers cascading down the generations.
Little sense adding to the praise of McKellen: he is magnificent, both in emotional line and in delivery of certain well-known lines which he makes new. Mever have I been more chilled than by his flat, prosaic reply to the more musically eloquent Cordelia’s pleading. With deliberation the father says: “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better”. Brrr. So just talk of the other excellences: Sinead Cusack as Kent, whose character works remarkably well as a decent straight-speaking middle-aged woman; Lloyd Hutchinson as a Fool with echoes of Eric Morecambe, Munby’s elegant solution to the old mystery of what happens to him, Michael Matus a Jeeves-like Oswald, beautifully nasty; James Corrigan giving Edmund dangerous vitality and not a little humour, Luke Thompson’s Edgar becoming Poor Tom better than any I have seen. And, not least, Kirsty Bushell as a psychopathic sexual sadist in a flippy short skirt, fit to give you nightmares.
So, heroic and beautiful and serious, the terrors of the earth. Well worth 3 hrs 40 minutes in heat which, despite the theatre’s pretty good ventilation, made you maternally pleased for the cast when after 90 minutes Lear, Edgar, Fool and Kent get wet through to their underpants by some stonking good stage rain.
box office atgtickets.com to 3 nov