King Lear with Ian McKellen
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Yesterday we saw King Lear with Ian McKellen at the Newcastle Theatre Royal. This is an RSC production, directed by Trevor Nunn and the theatre was packed with anticipation.
Considering that McKellen has waited all his life for this part, he was surprisingly relaxed as the king who achieves sanity and enlightenment via a sojourn through madness. The actor, especially in the scenes depicting the depths of Lear’s despair, has the entire audience in a nervy, emotional and moving sweat. The play is notoriously ‘difficult’, but the part of the king is surely one of McKellen’s finest performances.
It was obvious that the actor had spent a long time with the script. Every line, every word had been internalised and assigned meaning, giving us a Lear unlike any other I have seen or heard. McKellen is an actor who can be too grand, who can sometimes reach beyond his character and lose the genius of the playwright. But in this role he triumphs. Time and again during his appearances on stage I had no experience of watching a great actor. The old king came roaring out of him and the poor player was lost and invisible behind his creation.
It is a rare occurrence to be moved profoundly, but this production of Shakespeare’s tragedy took me there yesterday. The final act has never before acted on my emotions in quite the same way.
Throughout the performance I was reminded time after time of the figure of Don Quixote, a comparison which has not occurred to me in previous viewings of the play. Both, of course, are fond old men in need of a touch of dignity at the beginning of their fictional careers, and each of them, created around the same time (KL 1603-1606; DQ 1603-1605), have to go through periods of insanity in order to reach some peace and equilibrium with the world.
The script of King Lear needs no more praise from me, the direction and the concept and the supporting actors and theatre technicians all played their part. The music was often unnecessary, sometimes intrusive and inexplicable. But in spite of small flaws I do not expect to see a better Lear. And at this stage of his career, what a piece of work is Ian McKellen.
Previous post: La Vie En Rose (La Môme) – a review