Royal Shakespeare Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
The RSC's production of King Lear, starring Ian McKellen, is the most eagerly anticipated theatrical event of the year in the North East, with tickets selling out weeks in advance. For theatre fans, the combination of director Trevor Nunn (who was in the audience on the opening night), McKellen, William Gaunt and Frances Barber was almost irresistible and the theatre was packed and anticipation high.
They weren't disappointed: McKellen's Lear is, as he should be, a towering, dominant figure, especially in the depths of his despair and the madness it brings. In an opening scene created by Nunn to precede the play's first lines (Kent's "I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall"), loud organ music heralds a formal procession which culminates with the entrance of Lear dressed in what looks like the robes of an Orthodox archbishop. With great pomp and ceremony he singles out Cordelia and then departs, the rest, apart from Kent, Gloucester and Edmund, following, and we then move into the first scene.
When Lear returns, it is in a kind of Ruritanian garb and he makes his announcement about dividing the kingdom from a lectern and reading from small cue-cards. He then seats himself behind a table on which the map of the kingdom is spread, weighted down by the crown, and demands that his daughters express their love. He does this in an almost mischievous way and they, in turn, move to the lectern. However Cordelia's response soon turns his mischievousness to petulant anger and the scene is set for the tragedy which is to follow.
Shakespeare's Lear is an odd mixture, with the ancient British mingling with the classical and even the Christian, so there is no historically "correct" setting and Nunn gives us a half-Ruritanian, half-Russian context (with overtones of Ivan the Terrible), enabling him to contrast the richness of the opening scenes, gold and red predominating in Lear's costumes, with the "unaccommodated man" and the wildness of nature in the raw.
Christopher Oram's set charts the same deterioration. We are presented with what could almost be a reflection of the theatre's auditorium, a great curve of what looks like the front of the dress circle, albeit with a wooden floor and slatted ceiling. In this theatrical setting the theatricality of the opening scenes and Lear's attiutudes are emphasised. Then in the great storm it starts to collapse and fall apart, echoing the action and reminding us of the Elizabethan belief that nature and the world are upset when the natural order of things is breached.
McKellen charts Lear's descent from his initial grandeur to despair and madness and then into the ripeness for death with great subtlety. His is not a ranting Lear and his long drawn out fourfold "Never" is filled with utter misery. It is a fine performance which is well supported by, in particular, Jonathan Hyde as a forceful Kent and a wonderfully quiet, gentle William Gaunt as Gloucester.
In the part which McKellen played with the Actors Company in 1974 (in this same theatre - I was there!), Ben Meyjes is also impressive. He turns from the bookish, almost geeky Edgar in his early scenes into the Bedlam beggar Poor Tom, and then into the avenging angel totally convincingly. By small signs we see the character grow throughout the play.
I was not so convinced by Philip Winchester's Edmund, which was too melodramatic and lacking in depth, nor by Sylvester McCoy's spoon-playing Fool. The latter was not only insufficiently acerbic (which, in itself, might have worked) but his diction was unclear so that I found it difficult to catch all that he said, even in the speeches I know well.
In spite of some lovely moments ("the difference between man and man" was particularly well delivered), I found Frances Barber's Goneril uncompelling, particularly when set alongside Monica Dolan's Regan whose outer show barely concealed the raging psychotic beneath. Her almost orgasmic squeals of delight at the putting out of Gloucester's eyes were chilling. As Cordelia Romola Garai walked the sentimental tightrope of the part well.
In spite of these caveats, the good far outweighed the not so good and this is a production which enables us to look at what is arguably Shakespeare's most difficult play from a different perspective. Well worth the anticipation!
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the New London Theatre