Royal Shakespeare Company
New London Theatre
While Sir Ian McKellen's performance is perfectly serviceable in the early scenes of this 3¾ hour performance, it is only when his character begins the "blow wind" speech on the blasted heath that he shows why he is regarded as one of the greatest actors currently gracing the stage.
Then his sympathetic portrayal of madness, with an eventual reconciliation with reality, is truly exceptional and very moving. He is also in good company in Sir Trevor Nunn's RSC production, which has been well cast using actors many of whom are also playing for him in The Seagull.
The opening is stunning, bringing together Steven Edis's loud, noble organ music with Christopher Oram's sumptuous design, exemplified by colourful costumes and in particular, the regal gold of the King himself.
It takes time to deconstruct but this vision of King Lear is apparently set during the Russian Revolution, which makes a great deal of sense as factions collide and the disenfranchised show little compunction about killing. In fact, this allows for a moving, thought-provoking interpretation and a poignant interval curtain moment, as Lear's poor, cheery Fool is hanged.
The early scenes show an old man, already seemingly out of his mind, enchanted by the studied insincerity of his elder daughter Frances Barber as Goneril, soon echoed by her sister, Monica Dolan's Regan. It is only when beautiful Cordelia, sensitively played by Romola Garai, who also made such an impression as Nina in the Seagull, refuses to kow-tow to his madness that it becomes manifest.
Immediately, the delusional old King banishes his only true friends, first Cordelia and Kent - Jonathan Hyde giving a fine performance as a man with a silly beard but a great deal of heart - and then Gloucester, whose own experiences closely mirror those of the king.
In some ways, Gloucester, played by William Gaunt, suffers more than his leader in that he knows what is happening to him, as he is duped by his bastard son, the evil, self-satisfied Edmund (Philip Winchester) into banishing his other son Edgar, the superb Ben Meyjes. The latter impresses as a good son and overwhelms when he becomes Poor Tom, feigning madness while all around seemed to be going for the real thing.
Gloucester's suffering becomes more manifest when. like his king, he faces the inhumanity of Goneril, Regan and his own bastard son. By then, Lear has completely lost his mind, despite the efforts of former Dr Who, Sylvester McCoy playing his Fool with bouncing wit and offbeat imagination but enough seriousness to show real concern before his own untimely death.
This is a first rate evening's entertainment that has an unusual but worthwhile concept, looks good and features some tremendous acting, not only from the two senior men but also many of their aspiring colleagues.
It might take a brave person to spend seven solid hours in the New London Theatre on a single day, watching both King Lear and The Seagull, but nobody should miss the chance of catching these two special events on a more leisurely basis.
Playing until 12 January 2008
Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle