There’s certainly something poetic about Ian McKellen playing King Lear in the West End. Age 79, he’s joining a small circle of great actors who have taken on Shakespeare’s most challenging role not once, but twice. And, for what he says is his last Shakespearean performance, he’s returning to the theatre in which he made his West End debut in 1964.
Jonathan Munby’s production began life at Chichester Festival Theatre’s relatively minute Minerva Studio last year. This West End transfer runs at the Duke of York’s for a strictly limited run of 100 performances, closing in early November.
McKellen is joined by a sparkling ensemble: Kirsty Bushell as Regan, Claire Price as Goneril, James Corrigan as Edmund, Danny Webb as Gloucester, and Lloyd Hutchinson as the Fool. But the big draw is Sir Ian, returning to King Lear like Gandalf coming back from the dead. He’s been sent back, until his task is done.
But will the mercurial McKellen make this titanic part his own once again? Will Munby’s production survive the shift from country to town? Do the critics serve Sir Ian’s supposed swansong well?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Ian McKellen has done it all and won it all. Six Oliviers, one Tony, a Golden Globe, two Oscar nods, four BAFTA nominations, and an exhaustive list of Shakespearean credits – Richard II, Hamlet, Romeo, Macbeth, Iago, Richard III. He’s also been Lear before, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007. How does he do on his return to the part?
“McKellen is, of course, wonderful,” writes Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “His Lear goes from a vicious, vindictive despot, to a benign, humorous loon, to the gentle, weary man of the desperately poignant close – restored to his faculties, just in time to feel terrible pain. Not to be patronising, but it’s pretty remarkable stuff for a 79-year-old.”
He’s “spellbinding from the very start” according to Ben Lawrence (Telegraph, ★★★★), while for Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★★) “he is so comfortable inside Shakespeare’s language that he finds new meaning and inflections in every line”.
“This is not the declamatory monarch McKellen played in Trevor Nunn’s 2007 production, tearing off his trousers in the histrionics of the heath scene,” compares Arifa Akbar (Guardian, ★★★★). “It is a quickly broken Lear. His lines are spoken softly, stumbled upon, croaked out or interrupted by tears and occasional capers to show his ignominious decline.”
“His relationship with rage is so interesting,” analyses Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★). “Just as he seems about to reach a ferocious climax, he suddenly looks tired, as if he can’t quite summon the energy to be angry. At a couple of points he even slaps his hand over his mouth to stop himself from shouting. It’s that promise of authority and fury not delivered on that makes him so impotent – such a tragic figure.”
It’s “a performance of tender, fractured majesty” lauds Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★), while Sam Marlowe (Times, ★★★★) labels him “magnificent, capturing with shattering acuity the terrors of mental and physical decline in old age”.
“It is a precise, marvellously humane performance, McKellen using the intimate nature of the staging to draw you in,” observes Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★). “He is stubborn, volatile, vulnerable and, most poignantly, terrifyingly aware of his growing mental frailty.”
For Heather Neill (Arts Desk, ★★★★), it’s “a mesmerising performance, exploring the vulnerability of old age, the absoluteness of death, the fragility of life and of sanity with such humanity, such a mixture of twinkling mischief, unforgivable cruelty, gentleness and sad acceptance of his failings that it takes your breath away”.
“In the space of just over a year, the West End has been treated to two truly special Shakespearean performances,” sums up Will Longman (London Theatre, ★★★★★) “Following Andrew Scott’s memorable Hamlet, this captivating Lear sets the bar for those to come.”
Jonathan Munby is no stranger to Shakespeare, either. His extensive, international CV boasts loads of the stuff, from The Merchant of Venice at the Globe, to Othello in Chicago, Measure for Measure in Washington and Romeo and Juliet in Japan. For all this globetrotting, though, can he successfully shift his King Lear up the A3 and into the West End?
Some critics think he’s lost something along the way. “Intimacy and intensity sold audiences and critics on Ian McKellen’s King Lear in Chichester last year,” writes Bano. “Jonathan Munby’s regal production was squished into a 240-seat space.”
“But here in the West End, in an auditorium almost three times bigger than Chichester’s Minerva, and now with added pomp, some of that is lost,” he continues. “The production’s still very decent, but it also feels overladen with stuff. Its flash and clarity come in short bright bursts, rather than being sustained for the entire three and a half hours.”
Others, though, think that energy has been maintained well, thanks to a temporary reconfiguring of the Duke of York’s. “The intimacy of a studio theatre has been retained by building a walkway through the stalls,” explains Crompton, “so the audience is as close as it is possible to be to the action”.
“Responsibility, care, wisdom, self-knowledge, true loyalty – these driving themes of the play come tumbling to the fore in Munby’s modern-dress staging that retains the intensity of its 2017 chamber staging in Chichester,” contends Hemming.
Some critics still have a few gripes, though. “Munby styles the thing like a slick political thriller, moving at a great clip, full of terse scenes and dramatic blackouts,” describes Lukowski. “It’s not the most incisive Lear I’ve ever seen – the thrillery stylings fall by the wayside in a less inventive second half.”
“The one disappointment in Jonathan Munby’s otherwise splendid production is the half-hearted attempt to show how external forces, and the precarious position of the state, plague the beleaguered king,” complains Lawrence. “Blaring sirens and marching soldiers aim to give a sense of martial law, but it all seems a little perfunctory. I also question some of the contemporary settings, which occasionally jar with the intimacy of the verse-speaking.”
Others, though, think Munby’s managed the trip from Chichester to Theatreland very well indeed. “The lighting is sleek and cinematic: characters are spotlit for an instant before the stage falls to black again, and the mood is set on edge with sudden bursts of thrillerish music,” writes Akbar. “It gives the production its clarity and pace in the first part – a rare achievement for a play of epic proportions, opaque plotlines and anguished depths.”
“This is a staging of exceptional clarity and insight, and it pulses with life and urgency,” asserts Marlowe, while Akbar insists that “whatever its inconsistencies and imperfections, this production still dazzles, McKellen shimmering brightest at its dark, tormented heart”.
It’s not only the McKellen and Munby show, though. The show’s cast boasts talent galore. What do the critics make of Sir Ian’s supporting satellites?
“Munby’s cast is littered with terrific performances,” writes Longman. “Kirsty Bushell is phenomenal as Lear’s middle child, Regan. The crazy radiates off her as she licks her lips at the thought of torture, her eyes like glass stare straight through you. Her squeals of excitement as Cornwall hooks out Gloucester’s eyes are as grim and wretched as the action itself.
“There’s great support,” agrees Lukowski. “Kirsty Bushell is superb as a giggly, unhinged Regan, who becomes palpably more malicious as the reality that she no longer has to do what her dad tells her dawns.”
“The superb Bushell is all flirtatious coltishness interlaced with breathy brutality,” chimes Mountford. “As her husband gouges out the eyes of Gloucester, she screeches orgasmically. She and James Corrigan’s charismatic Edmund would have proved a match made in hell.”
“I was particularly impressed with Kirsty Bushell’s Regan, a sort of sexually knowing Violet Elizabeth Bott who gets an erotic thrill from the (rather too horrific) blinding of Gloucester and works in brilliant contrast to Claire Price’s Goneril,” adds Lawrence.
“Not all the performances work, but I think this is more to do with artistic decision rather than actorly skill,” he continues. “Lloyd Hutchinson’s Fool, part George Formby, part Frank Carson, seems too gimmicky and loses impetus once Lear embarks on his bewildering odyssey.”
There’s praise everywhere else, though. Bano lauds Luke Thompson’s “earnest” Edgar and Bushell’s “casually vicious” Regan. Lawrence likes Sinead Cusack’s “quietly galvanising” Kent and Danny Webb’s “terrific Gloucester.” And Sam Marlowe is impressed with Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s “self-contained” Cordelia and Corrigan’s “swaggering but emotionally damaged” Edmund.
Most critics award Munby’s production four stars, a few reflecting that it has lost some of its intensity and intimacy in its trip from Chichester to London, but most thinking it’s still a stirring staging of Shakespeare’s craggiest tragedy.
And McKellen is, as you’d expect, pretty astonishing on his return to the role of King Lear at the ripe old age of 79. Britain’s foremost theatrical knight is heaped with praise from all quarters, as are his fellow cast-members, particularly Bushell. If this is the swansong of Sir Ian’s stage career, it’s a damn good note to end on.