Following a sold-out run in Chichester, Jonathan Munby’s hit revival of Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘King Lear’, has taken the West End Duke of York’s Theatre by storm. The star-filled cast led by an undisputed legend of Shakespeare’s works, Sir Ian McKellen, takes the audience into a broken and militarised kingdom of broken family ties, epic storms, and ultimately one of the most tragic ends takes place. I entered the theatre ready to be in awe of the brilliant acting and the terrific staging from Paul Wills and although I found fault I was not disappointed.
Shall we start with what can make or break an interpretation of Shakespeare’s work, the staging? In the past I have been disappointed with staging choices for a production of King Lear, the grandeur and height of the action can be difficult to get right while making the production accessible. Paul Wills creates a dystopian and militarised court within the relatively small stage space of the Duke of York’s Theatre. Upon entering, the audience are greeted with a regal panelled room, plush red carpets, and an imposing portrait of McKellen as Lear looming over the whole stage. This opening stage creates the majesty and power of Lear’s court. It also creates a space in which a modern audience can associate themselves and identify with. With the monarchy no longer having complete control over the country a modern audience may find it hard to identify with the courtly politics and rules evident within the text itself; Wills negates this disidentification by highlighting the militaristic aspect of Lear’s court, something we are still familiar with today. In doing this and through the costuming used throughout a liminal space is created on stage, neither past nor present, highlighting the themes of the play rather than the archaic language.
Wills manages, as well, to add real jeopardy to the storm scenes through the use of rain on stage. Compared to original productions where cannon fire and instruments would have been used to create the effect of a storm, the tactility and sensuousness of actual rainfall in a combination of the lighting and sound effects brings the audience firmly into the world of the play. They cannot ignore the rain falling on the stage and they no longer have to imagine the feel on their skin or the sound behind the text being spoken. As a climactic point before the interval, the technical aspects of the production created by Wills and lighting designer Oliver Fenwick heightened the intense emotional journey Lear is going through in these scenes.
The main reason this production has done incredibly well both in Chichester and here on the West End is star-filled cast that has brought the characters to fruition. Sir Ian McKellen, an award-winning actor and former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, leads the cast well giving an elegiac and touching performance of King Lear. Beginning the play using his well known and commanding voice to capture the attention and respect of all the characters on stage and the audience as a whole, McKellen embodies the proud majesty of a King who has had a long reign and is well respected in his kingdom. However, as the play progresses McKellen shows the frailty of Lear’s age and his slow descent into apparent madness, the gentle and vulnerable way in which he does this stops the audience seeing Lear as an angry, mad, old man. This aspect of the production I very much enjoyed as it added a new element to a play that has been in production for 400 years. Adding a new take or interpretation on the themes of the play such as age is one reason this production has done so well.
One of the acting choices I was less pleased with, was the infantilization and sexualisation of Regan. Kirsty Bushell as Regan, managed to make a what could be a complex character whose interest in violence would have been an exciting dynamic to play with as a character choice. The idea that a woman would only be interested in violence in a sexual context is a highly overused stereotype. The girlish aspect added to this was even more stereotypical and in my opinion stopped the audience from viewing her actions as those of a woman and someone who knows the consequences of their actions. This let down one of the most violent scenes within the play, the sequence in which they gouge Gloucester out. Her characterization and the portrayal of sexual pleasure dampened the horror of these actions and the consequences they have later in the play. The production showed the eye gouging scene on stage, something only a modern audience would expect with the prevalence of violence in film and digital media. In doing this the production tried to increase the impact this scene had on the audience however, the characterisation of Regan prevented this effort.
All in all, I agree that this production of King Lear brought life and a new dimension to a classic Shakespearean play. The effort put in by the design and technical teams created a visual masterpiece that hooked the audience from the moment they entered the theatre and throughout as the actors used the space to create each scene with little in the way of scenery changes. The acting on a whole was of an excellent quality bringing the characters and the language to life with interesting insights to the themes of age and family that run throughout the play. However, as with every production there are ways they could have improved, and it was not an innovative performance King Lear. At the end of its run this production and its cast should be proud of what they have achieved by bringing a highly reviewed piece to the West End. I would give this performance a rating of 8/10 as I thoroughly enjoyed it although I do think there were areas I disagreed with, or thought could have been improved.
You can still see this brilliant production if you haven’t already through the National Theatre Live scheme, there are dates and showing around the country from the end of November onward. See what I thought of my National Theatre Live experience and why I think it’s a good idea – here.