There are only a few days left to see King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. This production, directed by Jonathan Munby, also had a successful and sold-out run previously at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Anticipation was high in the weeks leading up to the opening because it’s been 10 years since Ian McKellen played the titular role.
In William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Lear sets off his own undoing after he unwisely banishes his daughter Cordelia (Anita Joy Uwajeh) and divides the kingdom between older daughters Goneril (Claire Price) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell). Meanwhile, Edmund (James Corrigan), illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester (Danny Webb), tricks his father into believing that legitimate son Edgar (Luke Thompson) is up to no good.
The Duke of York is not a very large theatre. That size lends itself well to an intimate experience, even up in the balcony seats. The set design by Paul Wills is incredibly well crafted. A portrait of Lear hangs on the back wall at the beginning, depicting a confident king with his mental faculties still intact. Later, a large mirror hangs in the same spot at Goneril’s house. The mirror not only makes the stage space look bigger, but it also accentuates the brooding and dour expressions on McKellen’s face during the father-daughter conflict.
Before the play even starts, one’s eyes are likely to be drawn to a circular platform with red carpeting on the stage. The red fits well in denoting royal décor. However, that color later creates a jarring effect after the rain is unleashed in the famous storm scene. McKellen and Lloyd Hutchinson, who plays the Fool, get absolutely soaked by the water pouring down on them. The drenched red carpet reminded me of blood, as if eerily hinting at the carnage to come. The carpet gets changed to a beige material when the setting moves to Dover.
This production is set in recent times, as indicated by the modern-looking military attire. Worth noting is the decision to cast Sinéad Cusack (V for Vendetta) as the banished yet loyal subject Kent, a role traditionally portrayed by male actors. The gender swap adds a maternal element to the way Kent connects with Cordelia as she bids her farewell, and then checks on her in a later act.
McKellen is truly a master of his craft, shaking his fist and controlling his tone as he rages against the other characters. It’s not in the text, but there’s an added sequence right before the first act unfolds. The lights suddenly turn on to reveal McKellen standing in his kingly regalia on the red platform. His stance brims with tension as he silently looks at his papers and then at the audience before darkness envelops him. There’s a hint of menace and frustration in McKellen’s gaze that sets the tone for the play, prefiguring the conflict that will bubble up later on.
There’s also a lighter side to Lear’s madness and bitterness that McKellen captures in a compelling way. It comes across so well when he’s no longer wearing the suit and walks across the stage with large leaves extended like a weapon. His jaunty character strikes a strong contrast against the despairing Gloucester by his feet.
After McKellen, two other actors leave lasting impressions. James Corrigan’s Edmund resents not only his status as Gloucester’s illegitimate son, but also the physical abuse he receives from his father. Gloucester is quick to find fault with everything Edmund does during the song to the king. Corrigan is also convincing in his shifts from a suffering son to a conniving one.
Kirsty Bushell’s performance is quite memorable, too. She portrays Regan as bubbly and disturbing, whether it’s relishing the violence when Gloucester’s eyes get plucked out or practically prancing onstage with the Union Jack flag on her shoulders after her side’s victory.
The fight scenes are staged and lit very well. The choreography is perfect when the two sides finally meet in battle with their guns. Actors freeze and then move together until Lear and Cordelia’s forces are surrounded, with powder and bright lights erupting from above to mark the final moments of the confrontation.
King Lear will be at the Duke of York’s through 3 November. National Theatre Live recorded a performance to broadcast in movie theatres on 27 September. Theatre fans should check their local listings periodically for future showings of the play.