King Lear

Market Drayton Festival Centre

Ian McKellan’s King Lear began by snipping wildly at a map of the British Isles with a pair of scissors. He gave the top of Scotland to one daughter, the side of Ireland to another, and kept all the rest to bestow on his most beloved Cordelia, “That future strife may be prevented now.” Moments later he’d banished her in a petulant rage and the strife was relentlessly upon us.

Lear (Ian McKellan) with Fool (Lloyd Hutchinson)

In a programme note, war correspondent Fergal Keane eloquently related this strife to our 21st century discontents, “when madmen lead the blind” and we are stumbling on a “great stage of fools.” But the crumbling state seemed hardly more than backdrop to the disintegrating individual. McKellan’s portrayal was one of the broken majesty of man. His stubbornness, vindictiveness, his flights of fancy both cruel and laughable, his fleeting self-awareness – they built to a powerfully moving account of the onset of dementia.

Intimacy with his audience was key to this. We last saw King Lear locally at the New Vic, where Northern Broadsides’ Barry Rutter tempered his usual declamatory style to match the intimacy of the theatre-in-the-round. McKellan took it to a new level. When the dying Lear says ‘Undo this button’, he told us in the introduction, he wanted the audience to be able to see the button. More to the point, in this superb production streamed live from the Duke of York’s theatre, we could see every mischievous twinkle in McKellan’s eye, every drawn line of agony on his face.

The parallel story of Gloucester and his sons and the scheming ambition of Lear’s older daughters were by no means eclipsed by McKellan’s performance. James Corrigan played Gloucester’s son Edmund like Machiavelli on steroids. And Kirsty Bushell gave us a sadistic, sexed-up Regan who thrilled to the blinding of Gloucester at the end of the first half. I’ve never seen this portrayed so horrendously. I suspect ice cream sales during the Festival Centre’s interval were well down.

Gloucester (Danny Webb) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell)

Returning for the second half, we were rewarded with scene after scene in which our compassion for Lear deepened. We heard him bemoan the loss of his fool, saw him hooked up to a drip in a hospital bed. And then in his final scene, with his dead Cordelia in his arms, we had a moment of quiet lucidity that was utterly heart-wrenching.

Lear and Gloucester

At 79, McKellan has said this will be his final Shakespearean role, and I felt privileged to see it up close on the Festival Centre’s big screen. Part of the National Theatre Live programme, we’ll have a chance to enjoy their production of Alan Bennett’s new play Allelujah on 1 November and The Madness of King George in December.