Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.
Well, that was…intense. Ian McKellen was asked by the Chicester Festival Theatre, where he started his professional career many decades ago, if he would star in a play of his choosing, and he felt that he would like to “have a another crack at King Lear”. He asked for the smallest stage they had for intimacy with the audience and after a successful run, they transferred it to the Duke of York theatre in London, which is one of the smallest in the West End, made smaller by removing a load of the seating. I caught an encore of the NT Live performance held at the Curzon Bloomsbury.
Ian McKellan is 79 and has basically said this is his last major Shakespeare role and I am not surprised that he’s giving it up. Over the course of three and a half hours, he gave a high-energy performance that involved a lot of shouting, raving half naked in pouring rain for half an hour, carrying another person across the stage, and generally thoroughly wearing me out and I was only watching him on a screen.
All the more surprising given that King Lear isn’t actually in a lot of the play and disappears for most of an Act. I’d never seen or read it and so I did not realise that there’s actually a whole load of subplots that I’d never absorbed in popular culture. King Lear is based on a legendary British King described by Geoffrey of Monmouth who divided his kingdom among two of his daughters and immediately regretted it when they failed to keep him in the style to which he was accustomed. Interestingly, Geoffrey’s story ends with Leir taking his kingdom back by force, but Shakespeare evidently thought this a dissatisfying ending and instead has pretty much everyone die horribly.
This was played up in Jonathan Munby’s staging – a subplot features the Earl of Gloucester, who is hosting Lear’s daughter Regan and the Duke of Cornwall when he is framed by his bastard son Edmund as a traitor, having already dispatched his legitimate brother Edgar in similar fashion (who then spend much of the play also covered in blood and dirt pretending to be mad so he isn’t murdered). Gloucester, having gone out in a storm to look for Lear after he has been turned away by both his daughters as a burden to them, then has his eyes gouged out. This scene is pretty gross and drawn out. It’s set in an abbatoir and Regan’s contribution is to put on the radio and writhe sadistically in delight, which was all quite off-putting. Gloucester is then turned into a pathetic figure and both he and Lear spend much of the next hour gloomily roaming round the stage covered in muck and sweat bewailing the state of affairs.
It was a good play but the first half lasted about forty minutes longer than I wanted it to, and basically, it’s not Hamlet if we’re looking at Shakespear’s epicly long plays, and really there was far more shouting at the tops of people’s voices than I thought was necessary. A bit too high energy for me.