Will I ever see another play ever again that doesn’t have a slight whiff of Donald Trump about it? Doubtful. To be fair to King Lear, first performed back in 1606, the titular character shares unavoidable similarities with the current President, like his slightly tyrannical nature and his willingness to create and live in a self-deluding echo chamber, blinded by his love for himself. How could Shakespeare have known that 400 years later we would be electing world leaders with the same fragile, narcissistic tendencies? The opening scene, in which a smug Lear (Ian McKellen) is sang to in Latin by his children and staff, hands on hearts facing a gigantic painting of Lear’s face, is wonderfully totalitarian, and Paul Wills’ design is modern and beautifully detailed, and the runway connecting the stage to the back of the theatre, running through the stalls, opens up the production.
Directed by Jonathan Munby, it is visually stunning, and when the storm comes at the end of Act 1, the rain really falls on Lear. And by that, I mean there’s an actual rain machine and they get wet. The splashing about as they navigate through the water is messy and desperate, like Lear, Edgar (Luke Thompson) and Gloucester (Danny Webb) have become. It adds drama, and who doesn’t like a good old-fashioned bit of pathetic fallacy? There are moments, however, that are overpowered by the production, or that miss the mark – like the bizarre decision to set the infamous scene in which poor old Gloucester has his eyes gouged out to ‘Beggin’ by Madcon. Whether this is a stylistic decision meant juxtapose the horrific event, or to pay homage to a very similar scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in which an ear is cut off to Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, it just feels amateurish and underwhelming.
Sir Ian McKellen is Lear, obviously. Am I really going to criticise Sir Ian McKellen? He is a Sir, after all. Well yes actually, I am. He is brilliant, it is clear why he is a Sir – but he mumbles! Lear has some fantastic lines, funny and witty and tragically sad, but I couldn’t make out half of his dialogue as he grumbles and potters around. However, he captures Lear’s vulnerability so well, and is particularly wonderful as mad Lear, wandering around onstage in his pants and pretending to shoot his new friends with bunches of wildflowers. In these moments we wonder how such a man was ever going to survive in such a harsh political climate, was he doomed from the start?
Luke Thompson is restless and blathering as Edgar, and his portrayal of his fall from grace and descent into madness is disturbing, and gladly less humorous than I’ve previously seen. Lloyd Hutchinson delivers the wisest fool ever written with the perfect mocking and slightly sinister tone, and it’s both a joy and a pain to watch him run circles around an amused Lear with his banjo and thick-rimmed spectacles. He gives Shakespeare’s writing the performance it deserves, it’s just so clever, but also almost unbearable as an unwitting Lear laughs gormlessly at what he thinks is absurd, but what we know to be true.
Despite being well acted, beautifully staged, and classically adapted, it’s a true slog at over three hours long. I’ve never heard so many complaints as we piled out of the auditorium after Act 1, which is a whopping 2 hours long. For long-time fans of the Bard or Lear in particular, Munby’s adaption is heavy going, but offers an uncompromised staging of one of Shakespeare’s longest and most celebrated works. But, if you’re drawn in by Sir Ian, I’m not sure he’d be enough alone to stop you from daydreaming about what takeaway you’ll get on the way home. And if this is to be your first introduction to Shakespeare, I would certainly give The Globe a go first. Shakespeare’s incredible knack for crafting a tragedy has been slightly overshadowed by this glossy production.
Photo: Johan Persson