22 May 2020 | TheLittleSongbird
"This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen"
'King Lear' is a truly great and powerful play with a mammoth lead role that is a particularly Herculean task to take on, in a body of work of a prolific and esteemed playwright like Shakespeare full of demanding lead roles. Maybe it is not one of my favourite Shakespeares and it is an acquired taste for anybody who likes to have a titular character that they can get behind from the get go. It does have a powerful story, distinct and memorable characters, amazing text and when done right the atmosphere chills and moves.
This is a pretty fantastic production of 'King Lear', the third National Theatre Live transmission of the play (the previous two having Derek Jacobi and Simon Russell Beale, both superb) and for me the best. It has been billed as Ian McKellen's, one of Britain's finest actors and brilliant on stage, Shakespearan lead role swansong, what a note to go out on if so. This production may not be to the taste of anybody who prefers a more traditional approach, but to me it was one of the more fascinating 'King Lear' productions seen to me in terms of characterisation, one of the standouts of the more recent National Theatre Live transmissions and one of the best Shakespeare productions transmitted as part of this fascinating though inconsistent series.
It will be admitted that the costumes weren't quite to my tastes, they didn't look very appealing (unlike the rest of the production's visuals) and there is not enough of a sense of time and place.
James Corrigan overdoes it at times as Edmund. Mostly though, he is a sinister presence.
However, much of the production is very striking. The sets are unlike any seen before for any production of 'King Lear' in a good way, they avoid being overblown or distracting from the drama and any symbolism is not heavy-handed while emphasised strongly. Enhanced by the very atmospheric lighting and often cinematic camera-work, the big horrifying scene with Gloucester's eyes being gouged out makes even more of an impact as a result. There is some very effective use of music that doesn't come over as intrusive or inappropriate, especially at the beginning and in the aforementioned big scene with Gloucester.
Stage direction is absorbing from beginning to end. The highlights being the beautifully choreographed fight between Edmund and Albany and again Gloucester's big scene, a hard to watch scene in the first place but taken to horrifyingly shocking and pull no punches heights here. The battles are stylised but that doesn't come over as too gimmicky and the strobe lighting didn't make me feel nauseated, and this is coming from an epileptic. It is not a style over substance production though, as the characters are very individual in personality and their struggles are dealt with with humanity while not undermining the increasing intensity of the drama. Actually saw different sides to some of the characters never seen before (a more blithe interpretation of Edgar and another NLT Shakespeare production to have a male character portrayed by a woman, in this case Kent played by the great Sinead Cusack).
Almost all the performances are spot on, apart from reservations with Corrigan. It was great to see a Fool that was actually funny and not clownish or overacted, and Luke Thompson does give some refreshing blitheness to Edgar without distorting the character (despite that he treats the character with respect). Danny Webb is a very commanding and moving Gloucester. Cusack is a powerful presence as Kent and Claire Price shows Goneril's greed and ambition unsettlingly. Anita-Joy Uwajeh is a poignant Cordelia, while giving her a forcefulness that avoids passivity. Have seen mixed reviews regarding Kirsty Bushell's Regan, with some finding her hammy. To me she gave a very full-blooded and at times blood-curdling performance.
Best of all is McKellen, Lear is an immensely challenging and huge role to pull off with the play being long and the character complex, but McKellen is experienced in the role and has always been brilliant in it. Here he gives a towering Lear for the ages, embodying every aspect and characteristic of the character and his interaction with the other characters is intense and with Cordelia tender.
On the whole, great and very interesting production. Not everything works, but almost all of it does and amazingly. 9/10