FOUR STARS With a kingdom in pieces and France on the doorstep, it wasn't a great time for Lear to loose his mind.
Ian McKellen, Sinéad Cusack
Ian McKellen is impressive as mad King Lear in this NT Live production from London’s West End. Said to be one of Shakespeare’s most gruelling parts, McKellen (better known to international audience as X-MEN’s Magneto or THE HOBBIT’s Gandalf The Grey) is put through the ringer as poor choices weigh heavy on this monarch’s troubled mind.
When Lear’s most beloved daughter Cordelia doesn’t suck up to her father like her sycophantic siblings, Lear cuts her out of the will and banishes Cordelia from his kingdom, one he’s arbitrarily chopped in half and delivered to his remaining offspring. Once he comes to realise the self-centred purpose of his gold-digging daughters, the realisation that he’s unleashed devils comes too late: France is on the door step and madness has settled on his mind. Events move swiftly from violently grim to viciously gruesome as death comes calling for them all.
This distinguished production is anchored by McKellen in a wonderfully nuanced performance, one that’s likely to be the 80 year old’s last as Lear (it’s a gruelling role). All eyes are with him as he grapples with his frightful family and conflicted mind. It’s an exceptional performance played out against exceptional staging. Utilising a pier thrusting into the audience to create a more intimate space, the ‘modern’ setting for the play has trigger points from across the 20th and 21st century - from Lear’s palace with its fascist echoes to the contemporary uniforms worn by the French force. The storm is sensationally delivered and another reason an 80 year old might baulk at revisiting a future production.
It is easy to find comparisons between Lear and Britain’s Brexit, or indeed any nation flirting with a new civil order (and today there are many to choose from); it’s contemporary relevance that has always ensured the play’s popularity. With standout turns from Sinéad Cusack as the (female) Duke of Kent, and Lloyd Hutchinson as the not-so foolish Fool, there’s much to admire in this riveting production.