Synopsis: Lear (Ian McKellen), King of Britain, decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom between his three daughters. When Cordelia (Romola Garai) refuses to make a public declaration of love for her father she is disinherited and married to the King of France without a dowry. The Earl of Kent (Jonathan Hyde) is banished by Lear for daring to defend her. The two elder daughters, Goneril (Frances Barber) and Regan (Monica Dolan), and their husbands inherit the kingdom. Gloucester (William Gaunt), deceived by his bastard son Edmund (Philip Winchester), disinherits his legitimate son, Edgar (Ben Meyjes), who is forced to go into hiding to save his life. Lear, now stripped of his power, quarrels with Goneril and Regan about the conditions of his lodging in their households. In a rage he goes out into the stormy night, accompanied by his Fool (Sylvester McCoy) and by Kent, now disguised as a servant.
They encounter Edgar, disguised as a mad beggar. Gloucester is betrayed by Edmund and captured by Regan and Cornwall, who put out Gloucester’s eyes. King Lear is taken secretly to Dover, where Cordelia has landed with a French army. The blind Gloucester meets, but does not recognise Edgar, who leads him to Dover. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled but in the ensuing battle are captured by the sisters’ forces.
Goneril and Regan are both in love with Edmund, who encourages them both. Discovering this, Goneril’s husband Albany forces Edmund to defend himself against the charge of treachery. A knight appears to challenge Edmund and, after fatally wounding him, reveals himself to be Edgar. News comes that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then committed suicide. Before dying, Edmund reveals that he has ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia.
King Lear is the first Shakespeare play I ever saw on stage and I know it may sound lame but I just had to see it because it had Ian McKellen playing Lear and it is produced by the RSC, so how can I lose? Having had a taste of the company’s earlier performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull which I thoroughly enjoyed, I was in full anticipation to see this grand production which was also directed by Trevor Nunn.
McKellen’s Lear was a masterful portrayal of power, descent, and tragedy. Having just finished the Arden’s version of the published novel was already much too overwhelming, and seeing it brought into life by a huge and versatile talent as McKellen was a stroke of genius. Towards the end of the second act I was choking and nearly in tears with his tender and dramatic moment with Cordelia.
The other gentlemen in the ensemble, notably Hyde playing Kent, gave another brilliant performance- Meyjes as Edgar, Winchester as Edmond, Gaunt as Gloucester and McCoy as the King’s Fool were just as commanding. I must say that I was a little disappointed with Garai’s treatment of Cordelia, not that Cordelia is a role to die for, but it seems that she played it the way she did as Nina in The Seagull, not so much with Dolan who although was brilliant playing Masha, was in a totally different character as Regan.
I was totally blown away by this performance and was just pleased that I had the chance to see it. I am really looking forward to see more of RSC’s productions in 2008.
King Lear: 4/5
Playing at the New London Theatre until January 12