King Lear, NTLive Preview

”Ian McKellan reigns supreme in this triumphant production”. (Evening Standard)

Sir Ian McKellan, one of England’s greatest-ever actors, was born in Burnley, Lancashire in May 1939. He is, therefore, ideally qualified age-wise to play Shakespeare’s ageing king, who’s about to abdicate and thus set in train a cruel and calamitous train of events. I saw him undertake the role some years ago and wasn’t convinced that I saw Sir Ian at his best. Happily, his current assumption of the role in London’s West End is being hailed as a triumph. After so many years as a great of Stage, Screen, Radio and Television, I believe we have a treat in store at SGC. He is an actor I have seen live in the theatre on quite a few occasions and he rarely fails to excel. The review quoted at the head of this piece is representative of many such favourable assessments of the production.

The great Shakespearean scholar, A C Bradley, wrote:- “’King Lear’ has been described as Shakespeare’s greatest work, the best of his plays, the tragedy in which he exhibits most fully his multitudinous powers; and if we were doomed to lose all his tragedies except one, probably the majority of those who love him best would pronounce for keeping ‘King Lear’”. Late in his life, Richard Burton said that one of his great regrets was that he would never play Lear; it’s a tumultuous role demanding energy and the physical strength to carry his daughter, Cordelia. Lear is the Everest for actors who continue to act in later years.

‘King Lear’ can, in a good production, provide a memorable evening’s theatre that asks questions about human nature like no other play I know of. It has suffering, evil, reconciliations, cruelty, one of drama’s loveliest creations, Cordelia, and one of its great villains, Edmund –  along with some of the most magical poetry ever written. No one should lightly pass up a chance to see this towering play.

Shakespeare, the great poet/dramatist, has been on a pedestal for four centuries:- “He was not of an age but for all time”: (Ben Jonson, 1573 – 1637); “He was the man who of all the modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul”: (John Dryden, 1631 – 1700); “Our myriad-minded Shakespeare”: (Samel Taylor Coleridge, 1772 – 1834); and “Shakespeare, the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God”: (Sir Laurence Olivier, 1907 – 1989). For many, he is the world’s greatest dramatist who has created some of the greatest roles. Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Falstaff, Coriolanus, Iago and Prospero amongst the men; Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Cleopatra, Portia,, Juliet, Desdemona, Viola, Volumnia and Olivia are marvellous females.

‘King Lear’ is seen by some as one of the great dramas of world literature and its author’s masterpiece. Such was the fascination it held for the composer, Guiseppe Verdi, that he expended more energy and thought on a ‘Lear’ opera (which never materialised) than on any of his operas. Shelley, described it as “the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world”. A couple of centuries ago, that supreme essayist, Charles Lamb, dismissed it as the story of “an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night … The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted” – Lamb was wrong; it has had many memorable productions.

The plots centre around King Lear and the Duke of Gloucester; Lear’s experiences with his daughters has parallels with Gloucester’s dealings with his sons. Lear, a king in ancient Britain is over eighty years of age, and is about to abdicate. He sets up a ludicrous love test to see which of his three daughters loves him most. He rewards the flattering praise of his two eldest, Goneril and Regan. When the youngest, his favourite, Cordelia, refuses to compete in this charade, he becomes enraged, banishes her and divides her third of the kingdom between the other two.

To  In a rage at his humiliating treatment by his daughters and their servants, Lear rushes out on the stormy, rain-lashed heath where he learns about the worthlessness of worldly power. Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester is at the centre of a massive deception. His illegitimate son, Edmund, a ruthless, villain, convinces him that his loyal son, Edgar, is intent on killing his father. Edgar is hunted from court, and wanders around disguised as a naked beggar. The outcome for virtually all concerned is “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

Robert Eager wrote:- “Here is a family tragedy in which fathers are set against children, children against their fathers, brother against brother, sister against sister. It is a story of bitterness, jealousy, hatred, revenge and betrayal. It is about vanity, deceit and death. Opposed to all this nastiness are the virtues of love, loyalty, honesty and compassion”.  This drama of a dictatorial, petty old man deluded by the trappings of power, has scenes of elemental and terrible power. Lear on the heath, Gloucester’s savage punishment and the remorse of a chastened Lear, cognisant of his tragic errors; these are scenes that haunt the imagination. It is arguably Shakespeare’s most memorable tragedy.

‘King Lear’ is a play of redemption through suffering and the attainment of self-knowledge. In 1681, Nahum Tate, rewrote ‘King Lear’ giving it a happy ending, Lear is restored to his throne, Cordelia marries Edgar and all is well. Today we treasure the play as Shakespeare wrote it. ‘King Lear’ live from the National with the great Sir Ian –  miss it at your peril!

[Fogra: The three Oscar Wilde comedies by the Classic Spring Theatre Company that we’ve seen of late at SGC have been, for me, bordering on perfection. Thus, Dominic Dromgoole’s production of “The Importance of being Earnest” on Tuesday, October 9th, bids fair to be one of our 2018 highlights. Put it in your diary!]

Jim Ryan


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