McKellen is a Lear for our times

PUBLISHED: 09:54 14 August 2018 | UPDATED: 09:54 14 August 2018

King Lear at the Duke of York's theatre (Picture: Johan Persson)

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TIM WALKER gives five stars to King Lear at London's Duke of York's theatre

King Lear

Duke of York's, London, until Nov 3

***** (Five stars)

Two kings, neither in full possession of their faculties, are currently holding dominion in the West End, and across the Thames, at the National Theatre. One is sublime, and the other is, quite frankly, a ridiculous pretender.

Let us pay court first to Sir Ian McKellen's King Lear. The actor has played the title role in Shakespeare's greatest tragedy several times before. I saw him in Sir Trevor Nunn's much-hyped production of 2007, when he offered a performance of dazzling technical accomplishment. I have to say that it left me stone cold.

By contrast, his latest reprisal of the role - which he has hinted may well be his swan-song on stage - has moved me almost to the point of tears. I reacted differently for two reasons. It is, firstly, difficult now not to feel the contemporary resonance of the story of a leader who, by dint of one vain and ill-considered decision, renders asunder his kingdom and then comes to bitterly regret it. The king even stands before a Union flag in the opening scene as he rips up a map of his kingdom and hands out the pieces to his oleaginous but calculating daughters Goneril (Claire Price) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell).

Secondly, Sir Ian - nudging 80 - has grown into the part, both as a man and as an actor. He seems a lot less pre-occupied with the big, hammy gestures and vocal projection that have characterised so much of his stage work. He is finally feeling the role.

When he says "let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven," you feel the man as much as the character speaking from the heart of his worst fear. A lot of it - and this is always the measure of great theatre - doesn't feel like acting at all. It is as a consequence almost unbearably painful to watch.

There are some notable aspects to Jonathan Munby's production, such as the walkway that runs down the centre of the stalls, which enables Sir Ian, among others, to make some dramatic entrances and exits. The blinding of Danny Webber's Gloucester is especially gory with the suggestion, as it is being perpetrated, that Regan gets a sadistic sexual kick out of it.

I was mildly annoyed by Lloyd Hutchinson's gimmicky Fool - done up to look a bit like a bespectacled Eric Morecambe in his trademark raincoat - but the other players are saddled with no such encumbrances. Sinead Cusack invests the part of Kent with a greater than usual emphasis as the convenor of the forces for sanity, and I was much taken, too, by Anita-Joy Uwajeh's Cornelia: unabashed goodness is hard to make interesting on a stage, but she manages it, somehow.

The rain effects as Lear rages on the heath are impressive, too. Sir Ian, incidentally, chooses this time that discretion is the better part of valour when it comes to whether or not to become completely naked before the elements. There is a theatrical in-joke as he begins to disrobe and his Fool gently but firmly suggests to him that it is not a good idea by swiftly re-buttoning his trousers.

It is, however, a production of startlingly little artifice and this is its greatest strength. Munby keeps the focus unrelentingly on Sir Ian as Lear and the actor rises magnificently to the occasion. There are moments when, like all great monarchs, he really does seem to embody his kingdom. And this is a kingdom that has ever but slenderly known itself.

Exit the King

National Theatre, London, until Oct 6

* (One star)

I felt no allegiance at all, meanwhile, to Patrick Marber's new adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King. This strange, skittish production begins with the news King Berenger - who presides over an undefined country blighted by climate change - is about to die.

Rhys Ifans plays the king in a deathly white make-up, and, wearing an unlikely frock, he camps it up in a way that recalls the late Freddie Mercury. This cannot be described as acting: it is simply showing off on a grand scale.

Adrian Scarborough offers some ballast as the king's world-weary physician and Indira Varma is on good form as the haughty Queen Marguerite. Derek Griffiths - who I am old enough to still associate with Play School - has little to do as a guard, and what few laughs there are to be had are elicited by Debra Gillett as an engagingly hopeless carer.

The production - directed by Marber - drags on for all of one house and 40 minutes, and with no interval, the king's death could not for me come soon enough.

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