Intimacy and intensity sold audiences and critics on Ian McKellen’s King Lear in Chichester last year. 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.
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.
Paul Wills’ set consists of tall, slender wooden panels semi-circling the back of the stage which peel back like secret passageways. A long catwalk slices the stalls in two, and the opening scenes are rammed full of people in full royal livery on a red carpet. Lear himself is covered with medals.
Onto that red carpet later the storm unleashes huge amounts of rain, Munby showing how defiled the old symbols of royalty have become. And what a sight: all the might of McKellen shrouded in a thick mist of rain. His suit is so sodden that it clings to his skin and exposes the outline of his elderly frame.
When McKellen comes on in his vest and trousers, with mussed up hair, it makes the contrast of this king stripped of his power all the more marked. That’s what Munby’s production does best: follows the line of descent as things fall from grace and grandeur into chaos and despair.
Some cast members have changed since Chichester. Lloyd Hutchinson takes over from Phil Daniels as the Fool, but retains the slightly iffy 1970s comedian vibe – thick rimmed glasses, winks to the audience, banjo.
Luke Thompson’s earnest Edgar is great, as is Kirsty Bushell’s casually vicious Regan, whose squirming babyishness develops into outright psychopathy as she thrills and fizzes at the idea of pulling out Gloucester’s eyes with a rusty meat hook.
Then there’s Sir Ian. There’s his slight leg wobble as he climbs the step up to the stage in the opening scene. There’s the amazing moment, amusing and sad, when he practises a couple of air punches behind the Fool’s back, summoning a bit of his old vigour.
And although there are many great moments of delivery, he’s actually best in the spaces around the lines, leaning into his mannerisms. There’s oddity in his movements, his slightly jerking limbs, like he doesn’t have complete control.
His relationship with rage is so interesting. 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.
This is a meaty, film-ready production, but the amount of stuff in it leads to some surprisingly clumsy moments, like the badly deployed blood capsules when various characters get sliced with blades, or the cast having to slop noisily around on the wet carpet after the rain.
As the pageantry is stripped away, so is some of the production’s own greatness.