King Lear, the story of Shakespeare’s “foolish fond old man”, is perhaps the greatest play in world literature. And Ian McKellen delivers a towering and enormously moving and affecting performance of a man in torment, worn down by age and by his own limitations. “I would not be mad” is one of his most plaintive cries and McKellen’s intelligence and humanity imbues it with heartbreaking power.
Some recent productions have touched on Lear’s possible dementia. McKellen’s Lear is a man driven by fury and worn down by his years. But director Jonathan Munby’s production is also imbued with the many feminist readings of this play, and his Lear displays an unmistakeable misogyny towards his daughters. It was a neat touch by Munby that when Lear cuts up the map of Britain during his abdication from Kingship he hands the slips of map not to his daughters but their husbands.
But during his flight to the heath our king embraces his humanity, offering Edgar in the guise of poor Tom not one but two coats as the rains pour down and, in his own words, he learns to “feel watch wretches feel”. The wonderful thing about watching a seasoned performer like McKellen is remembering how it is a role which comes to older performers who bring their deep understanding of the play in every detail. And McKellen sometimes brings new meaning to familiar lines with a brisk and engagingly conversational style.
A lot of recent Lears have embraced a modern setting – and this is a contemporary-looking Britain, with plenty of pageantry and a modern army where the business of state is performed in wood panelled rooms and Lear’s retinue of 100 Knights are Barbour-clad posh oafs.
Lloyd Hutchison’s fool is imagined as a ukulele player, with more than a hint of George Formby about him, while Kent is played by a woman, a loyal Countess in a brilliantly battle-worn performance by Sinead Cusack.
But it’s also a pagan world and much play is made of pleading hand gestures to the heavens when Apollo’s name is invoked. This is a play without Christian mercy and forgiveness. It has a savagery right at its core, which we never lose sight of.
And there are few more savage characters than Regan, Kirsty Bushell rendering her performance with the familiar sexuality and a sense that she is turned on by the cruelty she is responsible for. She also seems slightly unhinged, coquettishly dancing during moments of cruelty, clicking her heels and overtaken with desire during the eye gouging of Gloucester. A scene which is never less than grim is not made easier here.
But King Lear is never an easy watch – but it’s always a rewarding one. Taking us into a mercilessly brutal world and showing us “unaccommodated man”, someone stripped of dignity and facing the bare truths of humanity, it’s like a punch to the solar plexus. And it’s wonderful to watch such a human, intelligent and honest performer as McKellen lead us on that journey. Go see.
King Lear is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane London until November 3. Box Office: 020 8544 7469