Sir Trevor Nunn's King Lear for The Royal Shakespeare Company with his fellow knight Ian McKellen in the title role was one of the highlights of 2007, selling out the New London Theatre just under a year ago, having started life at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford the previous spring before transferring to Newcastle. It is therefore very pleasing that it has so swiftly been transferred onto DVD so that all of those who were unable to see it on stage can share the pleasure.
In fact, this version recorded at Pinewood Studios has been re-directed for the film version and is now somewhat shorter with a running time of just under three hours but does not obviously lose anything of substance, other than half an hour or so from the running time.
There are advantages and disadvantages with a studio production. While the sweep and majesty of the original staging have now been diminished particularly as the colours lack vibrancy, presumably in an attempt to recreate the feel of the period, the acting is glorious in close-up and many will wish to view it more than once for that reason.
It goes without saying that Sir Ian leads the way with a magnificent portrayal of a noble man descending into madness and then pleasingly, coming out the other side with at least some of his wits intact.
He is one of several performers to excel with all three of the sisters played by Frances Barber (Goneril), Monica Dolan (Regan) and Romola Garai (Cordelia) having their moments.
On the male side, Sylvester McCoy makes a witty but very sympathetic Fool, William Gaunt is moving as old Gloucester and Jonathan Hyde (Kent), Ben Meyjes (Edgar) and Philip Winchester (Edmund) respectively loyal, wimpish and then mad, and evil personified.
Lear's journey comes across particularly effectively, starting out as a combative ruler, moving through bemused father to beaten and bowed old man until he finally comes to his senses following numerous deaths and especially that of his wronged, loyal daughter Cordelia. In every one of these phases, Sir Ian McKellen proves his star quality but never more so than as the winds blow on the blasted heath.
There is so much more to enjoy in this excellent film, which concentrates far more on character than is possible on a stage and therefore gives viewers, even those who saw the original production, a very different experience that would fully justify the investment.
In addition to the feature, the DVD also includes an exclusive interview with the star. Looking as if he has lost 20 years compared to the King, Sir Ian talks about the play and production for half an hour, offering some novel insights, none more so that his idea that Lear was twice married so that Goneril and Regan are only half-sisters to Cordelia explains a lot!
This DVD is something to treasure and should sell well, although the film itself is to be broadcast by Channel 4 on Christmas Day for those who can wait that long.
We have three copies of the DVD as competition prizes. Go to our Competition page to enter.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher