King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre (review)

11th of October 2018

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most recognisable tragedies, it follows the story of a King who wants to divide his kingdom in three parts for his daughters to rule together. He asks each of them to convey their love for him in as much detail as possible, but Cordelia, his favourite, is unable to do so. Because of her inability to share her undying love for him, he banishes her and divides the kingdom in two parts. As a result of his actions, King Lear’s sanity decays as his two eldest daughter threaten to rip the kingdom apart for their egotistical ways.

Jonathan Munby’s production of the play was staged at the Chinchester Theatre Festival in 2017, and the illustrious Sir Ian McKellen starred in it. When it was brought to the Duke of York for its run, it sold out very quickly and I was so fortunate to be able to get the tickets. The production is modernised, in that the costumes are much more current Parliament/Cabinet office wear. The stage was a traditional thrust, but with a circular motif, which highlighted the idea of a cycle, the what goes around comes around sort of thing. It was clever, symbolic.

Sir Ian’s performance was a bit of a mix. I felt that as the father, at the start of the play he was a bit stagnant, the performance wasn’t the best. He didn’t sound truly heartbroken or pleased with the attention given to him by his daughters. When I read the play I thought Lear would be more desperate for that love, something that already indicates the fragility of his mind which would foreshadow his descent into madness. That being said, lunatic Lear was captured perfectly by McKellen. The deranged father, who lost his only truly loving daughter and gave everything to two spoilt brats, McKellen encompassed Lear’s desperation perfectly as he blubbered on stage severely under-dressed and with a native-american inspired head piece. The more I think about it the more I believe that there are hints from the beginning of the play that Lear needs to be loved, perhaps that is purposely shown through the lack of a Queen. McKellen’s performance of the king at his worse was his best of the night.

I also have to give it to the Claire Price (Goneril) and Kirsty Bushell (Regan) for their performances of the sisters. They each seemed more sycophantic than the other, they captured the spoilt and self-centered nature of the sisters. Mostly, I felt like they really showed how they were loyal to nothing, not even each other, perfectly. I think that their performances were improved and heightened by each other’s, their dialogue and scenes together being the best part of the show. To be frank, they stole it for me, taking the play along their malevolent scheming to de-throne each other.

Lastly, thinking of the staging, one particularly harrowing scene was set in what looked like the back room of a butchers. Dead carcasses hanging everywhere, the scene is bloody and intimidating, reminiscent of an early 2000s slasher movie. I suppose, in a way this segment of torture, can highlight the dark and damaged psyche of the sisters as as well as the father. A weird decision, at first I was unsure about it, but I liked it and felt it was effective in creating that shadowed world and the damaged mindset of this family.

Overall, it was an excellent show, very long so be prepared to sit and watch. I would definitely come armed with snacks and plenty of beverages. I believe the show ends at some point in November, so catch it if you can. I rate this 3 and a half stars out of five!

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