Review: Ian McKellen blurs reality and fiction in “King Lear”

by Willem Gerrish | 10/16/18 2:13pm

One of my fondest memories of my senior year of high school is when my English class read, performed and studied William Shakespeare’s epic tragedy “King Lear.” At that time, the play captivated me with its stark and honest portrayal of human fallibility and tragic loss and it quickly became one of my favorite works of literature. Naturally, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch legendary British actor Ian McKellen star as the titular Lear in a performance broadcast live from London to the Black Family Visual Arts Center this past Sunday evening.

This particular performance of “King Lear” was put on by the Chichester Festival Theatre group at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. It is McKellen’s second shot at playing the complex and tortured Lear, and though I have never seen his first attempt, it’s hard to imagine it being quite as viscerally real and powerful as in this production of “King Lear.”

McKellen’s performance is a work of dynamic genius. He plays the part with a nuanced and organic blend of haughtiness, humor, madness and devastation, and the result is a Lear in whom we can all find familiarities, whether it be with ourselves or with those we know and love. I, for one, was reminded of my own maternal grandfather, and the connection brought me even closer to the character and made him come alive both on the screen and in the context of my own life.

I think that one of McKellen’s greatest touches upon the character of Lear is his use of humor. At the start of the play, his Lear is an angry curmudgeon spurning his daughter and advisor alike, but he also has a certain degree of churlish playfulness that builds sympathy and affection from the viewers. His acts of revelry with his band of knights are debaucherous and humorous and his playful banter with the Fool shows that he doesn’t take himself so seriously as one might imagine. These moments give us flashes of a Lear who once had his days of joy and youth in years past, and it makes the character all the more complex and fully realized.

And yet the dramatic scenes are still the most affecting, and McKellen handles these with courage, intensity and pure, raw emotion. During Lear’s culminating speech before he runs angrily out into the raging storm, McKellen follows the progression from rancor and derision to tragedy and madness with startling naturality and ease. He begins with a riotous delivery of the famous opening line, “O, reason, not the need!” and concludes with a heartfelt and profound utterance of its starkly beautiful conclusion: “…but this heart shall break into a hundred thousand flaws or ere I’ll weep. — O Fool, I shall go mad!” It’s followed by a prolonged pause so full of emotional tension that you can feel its effects seeping through everyone bearing witness, characters and viewers alike.

While McKellen’s incredible performance is certainly the main draw and spectacle of this production of “King Lear,” it is by no means the only boon to its success. The rest of the cast is talented and impressive, with particular highlights being Danny Webb as the Earl of Gloucester and Kirsty Bushell as Lear’s middle daughter, Regan. Bushell’s performance is remarkable for its unbridled and diabolical evilness, creating a version of Regan that is especially terrifying and villainous. She comes across as scheming, violent, sexually devious and borderline-masochistic; a perfect villain in this Shakespearean world of passion and vice.

Stylistically, director Jonathan Munby transports the play from 8th century Britain to the modern day, and by and large I found this change to be welcome and effective, if somewhat superfluous. Munby leaves the entirety of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English intact but changes the backdrops and costumes to fit a contemporary vision, and in doing so he brings the universal themes of this centuries-old play into the immediacy of the present day. It’s a subtle change that hardly alters the play’s essence and effect, but it does make it slightly more relevant and relatable. In many instances, though, the modernity of the play’s setting fades from consideration as the sheer power of Shakespeare’s words consumes the viewers’ experience.

Beyond the physical implements of costume and set design, the play’s production value as a whole is rich and engrossing. From the dramatic music and lighting during transitional scenes to the unfettered use of blood during the play’s violent moments, this performance is aurally and visually captivating alongside its requisite emotional and dramatic significance. I was particularly awestruck by Munby’s intense and gripping rendition of the infamous eye-gouging scene at the end of Act III. He pulls no punches in depicting this gruesome act of torture with uncensored blood and gore, and as a result it comes alive with horror and drama. Munby also sets the scene in the eerie confines of a slaughterhouse, complete with bloody animal carcasses hanging in the background. This dark and foreboding set is a perfect backdrop to the horrifying actions depicted, and it’s hard not to feel the sheer intensity as the Duke of Cornwall screams “Out, vile jelly!” and uses a meat hook to gouge out the eyes of the old and helpless Earl of Gloucester. It is a strikingly realistic and violent portrayal that draws viewers even deeper into the terrifying realities of this tragic play.

By the end of the near four-hour performance, I was left floored by the immense emotional and philosophical weight of this grand and complex play. Munby has taken the infamously difficult source text and presented it with verve and aplomb, and the result is a production replete with captivating gravitas and enduring passion. And at its center is the incomparable Ian McKellen, tackling the role of King Lear as only an aging dramatic legend is capable. McKellen is 79 years old, nearly the same age as Lear, and there’s something in his eyes as he plays the part that tells me the work’s treatments of human error and regret in old age are the most real and pertinent they’ve ever been for him. Perhaps that is exactly what makes him such a revelatory presence on stage: the line between fiction and reality breaks down as McKellen is not so much playing King Lear as becoming him.