The majesty of a dying monarchical regime, reminiscent of the Romanov dynasty before the 1917 revolution that was to alter the course of twentieth-century history, provides the bitter motif for Trevor Nunn's magnificent production of King Lear at the RSC's Courtyard Theatre Stratford. Christopher Oram's perspectival design, evoking the colonnaded grandeur of an Imperial Palace which collapses and decays in unison with the mental collapse and decay of Lear, adds a visually splendid backdrop to equally splendid performances. When the heavens belch forth their thunder and torrential rain, the cavernous Courtyard space is transformed into another world as Lear and his dwindling entourage cower in response to nature's elemental forces. There is a primal immediacy about this production, an immediacy of experience and fear, of folly and deceit, of humanity and passion, madness and inevitable death.
Ian McKellen's subtly-nuanced Lear, the bombastic quick-tempered father whose reliance on courtly flattery sets his woeful decline into motion, is magnificent in its flawed humanity. Lear divides his nation among his unworthy daughters, failing to understand the humble honesty of his beloved Cordelia. Her dignity in the face of sycophancy is greeted by her father's wrath and scorn. As if to symbolize the inception of Lear's madness, McKellen flings forward his head, allowing his long white hair to tousle manically from his head like a demented mad professor. In an instant he is transformed from self-controlled and controlling patriarch to railing monster.
The genetic imprint of Lear's madness is discernible in his eldest daughter, Goneril. Frances Barber glides on stage in magnificent gowns that enforce her regal dignity whilst highlighting her regal malice. Barber evinces an animal passion and an animal hatred of all around her. Only Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, can arouse her respect based on his own Machiavellian manoeuvring and cold calculated revenge.
Monica Dolan as Regan provides the perfect sparring partner to her delightful sister. Equally cold-hearted and bloodthirsty, Regan appears less capable of fulfilling her function as co-conspirator, too easily manipulated by the men who recognize her weaknesses whilst relying on her birthright for access to power. Dolan's Regan is petulant and spiteful and eminently enjoyable.
So many fine performances: William Gaunt's melodious voice adds gravitas to the Earl of Gloucester; Philip Winchester is a despicable Edmund, gnashing his teeth at the audience in disdain; Ben Meyjes provides a most believable transformation from the bookish Edgar to Mad Tom, an ash-besmeared mendicant who would be unrecognizable to his father whether he had eyes or not; Jonathan Hyde presents a world-weary Kent who 'shifts' into the guise of a rugged northerner with apparent ease. All add to the unique style of this excellent production.
Hyde's performance provides an interesting counterpoint to McKellen's Lear; as his king and master lies dead with his hanged daughter, Kent slowly exits offstage, drawing a pistol from his tunic. Kent's suicidal intent is both understated and grippingly valid as a moving theatrical moment. As too is an equally gripping moment at the end of the first half as Lear's Fool, played with compassion and clarity by Sylvester McCoy, is himself hanged by marauding soldiers. This gut-wrenching, petty and inane private execution, a fascinating interpretation of Lear's dying speech to his lifeless daughter, epitomizes the futility of innocence caught up in the conflict of power. The interval drink lost much of its flavour as the audience threaded out of the auditorium whilst the body of the Fool was left swinging gently onstage, only to be hoisted down and shouldered off by shadowy peasant figures.
Nunn has created a kingdom for Lear which resonates with the history of revolution and decay. McKellen rises to the challenge of his role and recreates the slow and almost imperceptible spiral of a great leader into emotional and mental weariness. This is a King Lear to experience on a visceral level. Its images will, I guarantee, haunt you for many years to come.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007