Part two of my 2018 Shakespeare Slam – the Tragedies, and I’m at the Duke of York's Theatre to see Sir Ian McKellen playing the most stubborn tragic hero of all. The most demanding, certainly. And possibly the most agonising, desperate, and frustrating of Shakespeare’s plays.
This is a reprisal of the production at the Chichester Festival production. Thank goodness it has come round again; I missed it the first time. We needed to see this performance of the archetypal mad angry Dad one more time.
Imposing. Photo: Ian McKellen's website
From the outset, an air-conditioning machine is vexing me from behind. I have to concede it’s a very hot day. But there’s more. Tube trains are rumbling close below the surface. All of this is making it a shade harder than usual to grasp the fullness of Shakespeare’s language.
Some of the seats have been removed from the stalls. It’s not quite as intimate as they had promised, but it’s a pleasure to see the actors going past us to the green room at the back, where Sir Ian no doubt enjoys his power naps. Or lack of power naps as the play progresses.
First of all, Sir Ian is perfect in the title role. Presiding over the faux grandeur in his court, and all the human chaos that stems from the outpourings of Lear's twisted mind.
The supporting cast is terrific. There’s Sinead Cusack, one of the Cusacks, as a sturdy, devoted Kent. I’ll be seeing her sister Niamh in Macbeth in December. It’s also a pleasure to see James Corrigan again, one of the RSC’s finest in the recent Rome plays. My mind flashes back to the Barbican and his Aufidius taking on Sope Dirisu’s Coriolanus. Here, were the King not present, Corrigan’s Edmund would be stealing the show. In the nastiest but most engaging of ways.
James Corrigan (Edmund), ultimately brought low by his own treachery.
Photo: Johan Perrson
Danny Webb is also impressive as Gloucester. I know I’ve seen him several times before but can’t quite recall where. I will not forget him this time. His big scene is almost unbearable. Bound to his chair and mutilated, Reservoir Dogs style, but in Shakespeare’s world, it’s his eyes and not his ear. I close my own eyes until the deed is done. It's tempting to think that Gloucester is incurring some Midsomer Murders style justice, as a punishment for first siring and then mistreating his bastard son.
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right:
Danny Webb (Gloucester) with Regan (Kirsty Bushell) and onlookers
Photo: Johan Perrson
Cordelia’s presence on stage is all too brief, but Anita-Joy Uwajeh is brilliant in the role. A great part of Lear’s tragedy is that he doesn’t listen to the little he allows her to say, and what she does say is too much for him. Cordelia is stubborn too!
So much frustration comes from the initial stand-off between father and daughter. He is unreasonable in the extreme. She refuses to sweet-talk her dear old dad. When she says “Nothing”, Lear quickly chides her with “Nothing will come from nothing”. But actually, as we find out, plenty comes from nothing. Just nothing good. McKellen is tremendous in presenting Lear’s arrogance, vanity and insecurity. Uwajeh is his match in her own strength of mind. And so she is handed over to France, with nothing.
Too late to apologise: King Lear with Cordelia (Anita-Joy Uwajeh)
Photo: Johan Perrson
The academic commentators in the programme notes draw on the national and political elements of the play. The dangers of dividing the nation and installing foolish leaders. Giving power to the wrong people. Modern day political misrule and bad decisions. That sounds very familiar in current times. All valid and good points. But I prefer to see King Lear as a play about domestic matters. Not so much a play about wars and nationality and the state of the British Isles – dished up on a plate for King James on his ascension to the throne.
My focus is on the family disagreements, arrogance, grumbling, making the wrong decisions and regretting them ever after. Breaking up the home, the family. Shattering lives through unkindness and selfishness. Breakdowns in communication. Refusing to listen. We also witness fraternal and sisterly jealousy, marital conflict and infidelity. Long standing friendships count for nothing.
Lear turning his back on Kent (Sinead Cusack), a lifelong friend and supporter
Patriarchy and female responses
The destruction all starts with patriarchal, strong-arm tactics, sour grapes, knee-jerk reactions, unkindness, calling for female subservience and getting some very different reactions. The wonder is these reactions include deep love and ongoing devotion from the King's one loyal daughter, despite the hostilities and unfairness that befall her. Regan (Kirsty Bushell) and Goneril (Claire Price) present us with two very ugly-spirited sisters, with a completely different female perspective. But dare I say I have some sympathy with their reactions to their father's demands, which come with unwelcome expectations and impositions.
The play is also a study in madness, with several fools and wretches. The Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson), Edgar (Luke Thompson), and Lear himself represent a variety of insane personae, from the comic to the genius to the devastated. I’ll be exploring madness across the tragedies in my Shakespeare Slam feature in 2019.
Who is the real madman here? The Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson) or the former King?
Photo: Johan Perrson
Most of all, for me, this Lear is all about suffering. Self-induced, unstoppable, tragic suffering, all coming about through old age and the frailty of the human condition. Shakespeare gives us just a hint that there are dark powers at work. It's nice to excuse our human frailties.
“As flies to wanton schoolboys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport”
But, even if these destructive forces exist, and operate beyond our control, we sometimes seem to give them a nudge.
Excitingly, at the end of the play, once you get past the devastation, it is possible to enjoy a triumphant theatrical experience. It’s tough when we hear the line:
“The wonder is he hath endured so long”, but with rapturous applause for the actors, and one very special actor in particular, we can celebrate the magnificence and the longevity of Sir Ian McKellen’s career. We must enjoy the wonders for as long as we can.
Some are born great...some merely stand next to greatness
And here, there is a final piece of irony. A top actor, being amazing on stage, playing the top man in the Kingdom, being brought to his knees and dragging every other character down with him. And arising again, as if being dubbed anew to popular acclaim.
Humanity and inhumanity. Laughter and tears. Reality and pretend. The marvels of the theatre. And here’s something I can’t always say at the end of a play...but it applies now more than ever…
“What a knight!”
See the Connected Cultures feature on Sir Ian McKellen: On Stage and Screen
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
Ian McKellen's Official Home Page http://www.mckellen.com/index.html