Director: Jonathan Munby
Writer: William Shakespeare
Runtime: 227 mins. including interval
Australian release date: 3 November 2018
Previewed at: Dendy Opera Quays, Sydney, on 23 October 2018.
Sir Ian McKellen has claimed that the role of King Lear, the latest in the National Theatre Live series of plays, will be his final performance of Shakespeare and it is a fitting choice for a grand finale. At 79, McKellen is the perfect age to play the old king as he loses control of his empire, descending into madness and death. It’s a massive part and one that requires all the skills in an actor’s repertoire to pull it off successfully.
In a production by the Chichester Festival Theatre recorded in London’s West End just a few months ago, McKellen is totally authentic in his portrayal of the aging monarch who, as he approaches the end of his life, wishes to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He proclaims that the one who loves him most will get the lion’s share of his estate and, to test them, he demands that they each declare their love for him. The declaration that pleases him most will be the winner. He is impressed by Regan’s (Kirsty Bushell) and Goneril’s (Claire Price) speeches (they flatter him outrageously) but the youngest daughter, Cordelia (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), is unable to vocally assert her affection for her father, saying she has no words to properly express her love for him. Furious, he disinherits her and splits the kingdom between her two sisters. This sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the family’s destruction, and dragging down close members of the King’s court, too. Not for nothing is it regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.
As Lear descends into madness, appalled by the treachery of those around him, a bitter power struggle rages, perpetuated by his daughters and their husbands, the Dukes of Albany (Anthony Howell) and Cornwall (Patrick Robinson). He has some support though, especially from the loyal Earl of Kent, played here by a female, the excellent Sinéad Cusack, and the Fool, the only person unafraid to speak truth to power (brilliantly played by Lloyd Hutchinson). Also noteworthy is James Corrigan’s terrifying performance as the evil, scheming Edmund, the bastard son of the ill-fated Earl of Gloucester (Danny Webb). But this is King Lear and all eyes are on McKellen, whose command of the Bard’s language is superb. Where his execution can be faulted, however, is in his use of tics and tricks; he sniffs, slurps and snuffles throughout, and over-emphasises the last consonant of the words, making them exceedingly distinc - ‘t’. These mannerisms are unnecessary and distracting and you have to wonder why he chose to deliver his lines this way. He is an old man; he doesn’t have to ‘act’ being old. Was he playing to the camera the night the play was filmed?
The production is staged on a clever set that features a catwalk down the middle of the theatre. The lighting is impressive, too - it almost plays like a TV drama series, with dramatic fades-to-black denoting the start and finish of each ‘episode.’ This interpretation of King Lear is an intense experience, largely because of McKellen’s stage presence. His Lear is unnerving to watch as the man’s decline is so real; and you have to admire Sir Ian’s strength to perform such a physical role, night after night. He is without doubt one of Britain’s finest living actors.