Across Land & Sea Travel Blog

King Lear at the Duke of York's Theatre: Review

Exiting the Duke of York's Theatre, eyes damp, pulse thumping, I had a fleeting thought: need I ever see King Lear again? 

Such was the power of this performance that I briefly considered ruling out any future productions of Shakespeare's tragedy, for fear it would never match up to Jonathan Munby’s revival. 

With rumours that this may be his last leading Shakespeare role on stage, Ian McKellen is bewitching as the vulnerable King. I found it near impossible to take my eyes off him. In the opening scenes, he stands nobly in front of an imposing portrait, decorated in royal regalia complete with heavy medals and gold braid. He is set to divide his kingdom into three, with a pair of scissors and a paper map, but Cordelia's inadequate speech scuppers his intentions. 

This production favours aching melancholy, as opposed to deranged chaos, which makes for dignified and moving viewing. This is most evident in McKellen's verse: he goes from scathing to apologetic, colloquial to lyrical, upbeat to unhurried, the unpredictability of which adds to the character of a maddening royal.

Alongside McKellen, the supporting cast are fantastic. The calculating speeches of Edmund, delivered by James Corrigan, have an impressive conversational ease. Kirsty Bushell's sadistic Regan is spine-chilling in her lust for blood; the slaughterhouse eye-gouging scene had me wincing with every 'whoop!', as she bounded around the stage in bloody stilettos. Her sister Goneril (Claire Price), on the other hand, is measured and elegant. Kent is a Countess, and the character's sympathy for sincere and soldierly Cordelia (Anita Joy Uwajeh) is the more understandable for it. Sinéad Cusack gives us a brilliant double act of devoted advisor and tough Irishman, and she seems unfazed by all the manhandling she receives. Such tousles, directed by Kate Waters, are effectively persuasive. Even minor characters are given some attention; Oswald (Michael Matus) is a supercilious servant with intensely oiled hair, whose yelps offer some welcome humour. 

One of the most memorable moments is the storm scene. The front row seats offered to 16-25 year olds for a mere £5 (see below) should be promoted as an immersive experience, such was the proximity to the stage and the tendency to get lightly splashed with water! Far from the tweed-wearing, whip-cracking king that we witness in the early scenes, McKellen's Lear continues to unravel. He tenderly wraps his sodden suit jacket around the shivering Poor Tom and wrings out his soaked handkerchief, despite the continuing downpour. 

A poignant encounter with the blinded Gloucester (played brilliantly by Danny Webb) later follows: holding a bunch of flowers and sitting childlike in a white vest, King Lear jokes gleefully and comforts his old friend, as if their troubles were that of ordinary OAPs. Within a matter of lines, his face is marred with grief as he looks to the sky and cries silently. After, he is laying in hospital on a drip, and on stepping gingerly from the bed, shuffles aimlessly in his pyjamas. It is agony to watch his torment, no more so than when the 79-year-old McKellen enters carrying the dead Cordelia, Christ-like, on his back. 

Bottom lip quivering, I was absorbed trancelike, with goosebumps, for three-and-a-half hours. I came out giddy and smitten, as I did when I was a child, after first realising what could be achieved on stage. Any piece of theatre that commands such emotional and physical reactions needs no further advertisement - just go. 


King Lear runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 3 November 2018.

There is a National Theatre Live screening of the production on Thursday 27 September at cinemas across the UK.

If you are aged 16-25 inclusive, take advantage of Chichester Festival Theatre's Prologue scheme and bag yourself a £5 ticket. These are available at the box office on the day of the performance only and may vary in availability and seat location - I arrived at 7.30am and was the 6th person in line on Saturday 14 July. Maximum one ticket per person and proof of ID is required when booking AND collecting your ticket 10 minutes prior to the performance. 

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