King Lear

Posted on: 08 January 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Ian McKellen stars in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production.

An almost palpable air of tragic inevitability hangs over Trevor Nunn's splendid staging of King Lear which marks the RSC's final production in their Shakespeare's Complete Works Festival, and it has now transferred from Stratford to London's West End at the New London Theatre.

King Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. But when, unlike her sisters, Cordelia refuses to make a public declaration of love for her father she is disinherited and, without a dowry, is married by the King of France. The Earl of Kent defends her and is banished by Lear. Meanwhile the two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, inherit the kingdom.

In a parallel sub-plot the Earl of Gloucester, deceived by his bastard son Edmund, disinherits his legitimate son, Edgar, who is forced to go into hiding to save his life. Now stripped of his power, Lear quarrels with both Goneril and Regan about the conditions on which he is to stay in their households. In a rage he goes out into the stormy night, accompanied by his Fool and by Kent, now disguised as a servant. They encounter Edgar, disguised as a mad beggar. Gloucester goes to help Lear but is betrayed by Edmund and captured by Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, who as a punishment, put out his eyes.

The wheels have thus been set in motion for the tragedy that is to ensue.

This production opens in true splendour with a blast of trumpets and a procession heralding the arrival of Lear who enters in golden robes and appears to be communing with divinity. This sets the tone for a production in which the gods are often invoked, yet always absent. Indeed the world conjured up here is not one of divine intervention but of human cruelty and an unquenchable thirst for power which transcends all human emotions.

Christopher Crams' set - plush velvet curtains and a theatrical balcony - adds a sense of courtly grandeur which gradually disintegrates as the mood grows even darker.

Ian McKellen brings a mixture of fury, intelligence, vulnerability and sorrow to the role of Lear, a man "more sinned against than sinning", and his tormented descent from anointed monarch to bewildered beggar is genuinely moving, so that when he ruefully remarks on seeing the body of Cordelia, "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?" we can all share his grief and anger. Other impressive performances come from Frances Barber as a suitably scheming and vengeful Goneril, Monica Dolan as an almost psychopathic Reagan, Romola Garai as a sincere and convincing Cordelia, William Gaunt as a dignified, truly loyal Gloucester and Philip Winchester as a really cunning and embittered Edmund.

In short then a long (3¾ hours) but rewarding evening in the theatre which still has a thing or two to teach us about human nature.

Plays in repertory until 12th January 2008.

Box office: 0870 890 014 or: www.rsc.org.uk

By Laurence Green

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