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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.

King LearConsidering 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.

12 Responses to “King Lear with Ian McKellen”

  1. Geoffrey Philp says:

    I’m now having dreams of coming to England just to see this.

    jb says: I can imagine much worse trips – like coming to England and missing it.

  2. Jim Winter says:

    Sadly, LEAR is not one of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve seen yet. Our local company, which took its cues from McKellan on two productions of RICHARD III, has yet to do it. Or at least they haven’t done it since I’ve been aware of it.

    I’d love my first time to be a McKellan effort, but alas, Newcastle’s a bit of a rough commute for me at the moment. Do you know of any recordings of this production?

    jb says: Sorry, I don’t know the answer. The RSC would know.

  3. Paul says:

    Excellent writing John. You communicated your enjoyment and enthusiasm so clearly that I felt I was able to share it, at least in part.

    jb says: Twenty-four hours later and it’s still rolling around inside my head.

  4. Andrew says:

    Have you seen ‘The Field’ with Richard Harris, John; a bit of an Irish Lear story? Harris superb in the role…I wonder if he has done Lear.

    jb says: Yes, I saw The Field and enjoyed it. I don’t think Harris ever played Lear on stage, though his last film, My Kingdom was, allegedly, based on Shakespeare’s play.

  5. george says:

    I am chinese who study at Sunderland. and i have see this performance in theatre royal of Newcastle. before i see the much ado about nothing in Sunderland empere theatre. though i can not understand the words that actor performanced on the stage, but they are best performance since i see in UK. when i go to china, there is few opportunities to see this classcic performance. Ian McKellen is good actor as i see this and learn him.

    jb says: Hi George. Thanks for dropping by, and for your comments. Good to see you’re making the most of your stay here.

  6. DS says:

    Studied Lear at A level many moons ago. If I had seen this perfomance then an A would have been a cert. Disappointed that my pupils (yes, I became an English teacher) are not able to access great performances due to extortionate costs. There was an apparent atmosphere, for me, of individuals attending because it was apt within their social circle :”What, what!” and, unfortunately, prices subscribe to the the wealthy mentality. Bring Shakespeare alive to the masses, as the Bard himself intended. (Indeed, William would have applauded the numerous lewd references made last night, which I must point out were never a subject of discussion during my tutorials).

    jb says: Glad to hear you made it, DS, and enjoyed it, too. Though I do take your remarks, about the forbidding prices, to heart. Great, though, isn’t it, that they bring the performance to Newcastle?

  7. anne says:

    This sounds amazing. I want to wriggle my nose and be there.

    Have you seen McKellen’s movie of Richard III? It’s hardly a cheery play, obviously, but he manages to wring all kinds of varying feelings out of himself and the viewer. It’s an astonishing, amazing, fantastic piece. Perhaps fit for a (draining, incredible) double feature with this Lear, one day.

    jb says: Yes, I did see the film, maybe about ten years ago, if I remember correctly. They wore fascist uniforms and it was set in an alternative 1930s Europe. Annete Bening as Queen Elizabeth and Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Anne. It was very impressive.

  8. Henry Holland says:

    I found your fine blog, now bookmarked, via a Google search for “King Lear script” as I’m cutting and pasting the text of my favorite bits for my Dad so he doesn’t have to read the whole script. 🙂

    I saw the RSC production on a matinee at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in June, on one of my semi-annual theatre/opera/concert trips from here in Los Angeles to my beloved England.

    The Courtyard is tiny, at least by American standards. I was very, very, very lucky to get a standing room ticket (11 pounds, thank you), which meant I got to stand behind the seats in the second tier. I felt on top of the action, very intimate. After the play, I felt fortunate that I was in standing room because I involuntarily burst in to tears twice during the play, that’s how involved I was (or maybe I’m just a silly old sentimental prat!), so I could walk around to gather myself. I agree, the music *was* intrusive, though that opening blast of organ was pretty cool.

    As magisterial as Sir Ian’s performance was, it would be churlish of me to not mention how astonished I was by the quality of the whole company. I couldn’t believe it when I went to that evening’s very fine performance of “The Seagull” and saw a lad who had one or two lines as a knight in KL acting one of the leading roles (and superbly too). Ben Meyjes as Edgar was amazing, totally engrossing as Edgar; (sorry, after him I’ve forgotten the actors names 🙁 and I don’t have my programme at hand); the Edmund was slippery and devious and wonderful–their sword fight was the best I’ve ever seen on a stage, superbly done. All the other “older” male roles were very well done, I thought.

    The ladies were a bit of a mixed bag, for me. The Cordelia, I felt, never really got under the skin of the role and her voice was wrong (it was kind of high and loud!); the Goneril came close to camp and the Regan was a cipher. Oh well, not a major thing in this play, I’d say, it’s tilted heavily towards the men. The production was spare and moody, very apt.

    I walked out in to the beautiful sunshine of Stratford –I brought the weather with me, it seems– totally, completely shattered. I went back to my hotel and just sat in a chair and stared at the walls for a while to regroup before the evening’s “Seagull”. A very nice pint of ale in the Dog & Duck on the way to the performance was most welcome!

    As for the prices in Newcastle, considering how bloody expensive England is, irrespective of the dollar taking a right kicking from the pound, that’s not really surprising to me. However, here in Los Angeles, where both plays are coming in October, the prices are $90, 50 & 40 (45, 25 & 20 pounds) for the “King Lear” in an 1,800 seat venue the size of a small basketball arena that’s normally used for lectures and symphony concerts. And frankly, if it wasn’t for the toffs who show up just to be seen paying the high prices, it’s likely stuff like this would never make it to the “provinces” now, would they?

    jb says: Hi Henry. Nice to see you here. I forgot to mention the sword-fight. Thanks for reminding me. It was superb.

  9. Mary says:

    During a flight in spring 2006, I saw an article about the RSC performing The Complete Works, culminating with Sir Ian McKellan as Lear. It was one of those defining moments in life: I knew that I had to go see this play, and I was taking my family with me!

    To that end, I became a full overseas RSC member so I could order tickets the day they became available, sent in my order by overnight mail (ouch!), eagerly made plans, and waited.

    I am so pleased to say that the actualization exceeded my anticipation, which was considerable!

    We were able to schedule our trip from California to England during our school spring break, and thanks to some better-fare deals, we extended our trip by a week, which enabled us to see Patrick Stewart’s last performance in The Tempest in London. That was a terrific show.

    Due to some heavy traffic from London, we barely made it to Stratford in time for the performance. My husband, 11-year-old twins, 10-year-old daughter, and I literally ran to the Courtyard Theater as the bells were ringing to begin the show.

    It was a tremendous thing for me to see Sir Ian perform live, and even though King Lear is a bit difficult, especially for 10- and 11-year olds (even ones who have been to numerous Shakespeare performances and also performed in some Shakespeare plays), we were engrossed in the performance. The progression of Lear from robust man to feeble ancient was nothing short of amazing to watch. It was masterful.

    Afterward, we went to the stage door and were able to have a moment to chat with Sir Ian, who was most interested in finding out how my children–particularly my little one–liked the show. He seemed genuinely pleased to see children had come to see the performance, and he was very kind to them. He agreed to a quick photo with them, and the memory of their meeting still shines for us.

  10. […] for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear, with Ian McKellan in the lead role, were selling for up to $1700 in Los Angeles. I think we paid […]

  11. Toon Army Scribes says:

    Good for you, JB, that you managed to catch the play. We never got the chance. Most things McKellan would be worth watching. 🙁

  12. r4 says:

    “King Lear” is one of the best kings. I am also wondering to see him. Its nice to see him with Ian McKellen.