Ian McKellen in King Lear

Review - King Lear starring Ian McKellen at the Duke of York's Theatre

Will Longman
Will Longman

From a grand oak table, an aging, power-hungry dictator brandishes a pair of golden scissors and divides his kingdom up for his beloved daughters to preside over. As his grip on sanity dwindles, a series of secret correspondences are uncovered, ultimately securing the authoritarian's fate.

No, we're not inside Trump's Oval Office. But as this unrelenting production from Jonathan Munby proves, with a superlative performance from Ian McKellen at its centre, Shakespeare's King Lear could not be more relevant right now.

This is not the first time McKellen has played Lear, he returns to the role after appearing in the RSC's worldwide production in 2007. Now, approaching Lear's old age, he seems perfect for the role. As he strides through the stalls - Paul Wills' bleak set dissects the lower level in half with an elevated walkway - Lear is slow, doddery: a man worn out and ready to retire. Yet as he descends into madness at the ungratefulness of his scheming daughters, he becomes lighter on his feet, more youthful, maniacal. In both his egalitarian and demented state, every flinch and every gesture, every breath and every blink is calculated, and McKellen delivers a masterclass.

Munby's cast is littered with terrific performances. Sinead Cusack's Kent is proud and humble in her loyalty to Lear, trekking through the storm by his side with the Fool, a jolly, wise Lloyd Hutchinson. As Edmund, the smooth, slippery James Corrigan brings an air of cockiness and sleaze to the play.

Kirsty Bushell is phenomenal as Lear's middle child, Regan. The crazy radiates off her as she licks her lips at the thought of torture, her eyes like glass stare straight through you. Her squeals of excitement as Cornwall hooks out Gloucester's eyes are as grim and wretched as the action itself.

Munby's production hits the mark on all accounts. Its modern aspects give it an industrial feel as soldiers march with machine guns, or when Kent is caged and suspended above the stage. (Showcasing military might? Locking people in cages? Sound familiar?)

But they also reinforce absurdities about modern leadership; as Lear prays on his knees expressing his regret at how he treated the homeless during his reign - and now that he knows how it feels to sleep rough - a group assemble behind him, reminding us all that we have to do better.

Even so, if there was one reason to see this Lear, it has to be McKellen. Each line is spoken with an elderly wisdom, even in the depths of his palpable madness. It's tormenting and triumphant. In the space of just over a year, the West End has been treated to two truly special Shakespearean performances. Following Andrew Scott's memorable Hamlet, this captivating Lear sets the bar for those to come.

King Lear is at the Duke of York's until 3rd November. 

King Lear tickets are available now. 

"There is a sense of an actor putting the finest last touches to his majestic legacy: in McKellen's incarnation as the arrogant ruler undone by age, infirmity and filial disobedience."
Arifa Akbar, The Guardian (four stars)

"McKellen is known to sometimes drown out nuance with too much command coming from the diaphragm, but here the voice is rich and supple, which highlights the old man's vulnerability."
Ben Lawrence, the Telegraph (four stars)

"McKellen is hypnotic as a bullying monarch who uses language like a weapon. He skewers his elder daughters Goneril and Regan with torrents of brutal sarcasm, impaling them on scornful readings of lines that seem harmless in other productions."
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out (four stars)


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