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King Lear

Published April 17, 2008

King Lear, like Hamlet and Macbeth, is one of those Shakespearean roles that, when played by an acclaimed actor, has audiences salivating at the thought. It has the phrase career-defining lurking in the recesses of critics’ minds. So Ian McKellen’s attempt at the great king who foolishly gives away his land has been eagerly anticipated. Matthew Amer was at the first night at the New London.

Lear’s arrival on stage, accompanied by organ music and prostrating subjects, is full of religious symbolism, Lear as an almighty bishop alluding to the gods that so quickly desert the characters in this most tragic of tragedies.

McKellen’s Lear, resplendent in bright red jacket, proud, commanding, yet doddery, shaking and with sagging mouth, puts one in mind of a Chelsea pensioner; a great man who has been lessened by time. For McKellen’s Lear is a man teetering on the edge of dementia, struggling with the loss of mind-power that can come with old age.

When Regan and Goneril proclaim that he has no need for his entourage of 100, it seems impossible not to see it as the exploitation of a frail old man no longer able to care for himself. Perhaps he should be put in a home. When he finally recognises Kent and Cordelia it is like the fleeting moment of recognition on the face of an Alzheimer’s sufferer.

To single out McKellen, however, would be an injustice to a strong cast. Frances Barber’s Goneril, initially shocked and tearful at the reaction of her father, becomes a cold unmoveable ice queen, while Monica Dolan’s Regan has filthy ambition and bloodlust running through her veins.

Philip Winchester imbues Edmund with the cockiness and sexual power of a teenage sportsman, and Sylvester McCoy’s Fool is a man trying desperately to save some one he so deeply cares for from himself.

Christopher Oram’s set and Neil Austin’s lighting, which begin with the deep reds and opulence of regal majesty, disintegrate in harmony with the lives of Lear and William Gaunt’s unbending Gloucester, leaving a cold, harsh, unloving setting for Shakespeare’s tragic, godless denouement. em>MA

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