King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre
If you’re being cynical, it’s very easy to play a game of modern-dress Bard bingo with Jonathan Munby’s production of King Lear. Vague present-day setting, borrowing a slightly parliamentary vibe from Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III? Tick! An offbeat musical choice to give the eye gouge scene a Tarantino edge? Check! A bit of “non-traditional” casting – here a very good Sinead Cusack as the ever-loyal Kent – but only in a supporting role? Yep! An overly choreographed battle scene in blandly accurate military garb? Jackpot! It’s an undoubtedly classy and slick affair, just one that never feels like it has anything original to say.
But, goddammit, there’s Gandalf playing the tragic royal! The unsurprisingly majestic Ian McKellen is full of frail rage, barely able to get through his tantrums without becoming breathless or distracted. The actor is petulant and cruel, only gradually fading into a flower-crowned old fool, a fraction of his former self.
Before things become too bombastic in the back end – the moment camo appears the drama starts to go downhill – Lear is a familiar figure of burden to his family, an acid-tongued patriarch who refuses to relinquish control despite his faculties failing him. A source of resentment for those children who have had a lifetime of his moods and sycophantic requirements, any pity for him is tempered by the signs of what kind of father he was.
What does come through in the superior first half is an idea of wealth. Flanked by a hoard of Barbour-coated boors, the protagonist is like a pro-fox hunting member of the landed gentry, just one that happens to rule an entire country (very Prince Charles). It’s a shame that this thread is sort of lost the longer the play goes on – and the more war-time thriller elements take over – as costume supervisor Joan Hughes has presided over a specific kind of moneyed look that could have been used for a few political jabs.
The production is, admittedly, not as much of a one-man show as the above makes it sound. James Corrigan’s spurned and scheming Edmund makes for a gleefully dangerous villain, while Kirsty Bushell is great as amorous wild child Reagan. Banjo in hand, Lloyd Hutchison’s Fool is also a cardigan-wearing highlight, especially when he busts out an impression of the one-time Magneto.
Honestly, though, McKellen is the main reason people are going to see this production, and in that regard, they won’t go home disappointed. Anyone expecting something more than that, however, just might.
Photo: Johan Persson
King Lear is at the Duke of York’s Theatre from 11th July until 3rd November 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.