Sir Ian McKellen completed an extraordinary journey this week (28 November 2007, previews from 14 November), when he brought his King Lear, directed by his long-time friend Trevor Nunn, triumphantly into the West End (See 1st Night Photos, 29 Nov 2007). The transfer follows an initial run last spring at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and an international tour that’s caused ticket frenzies in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Tickets for the limited season to 12 January 2008 at the West End’s New London Theatre – where it runs in repertory with Nunn’s cross-cast production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, opened to the press the night before – sold out long ago and are now only available via ticket touts and ebay.

First announced more than two years ago, the McKellen-Nunn King Lear was scheduled as the ultimate production for the year-long Complete Works Festival at the RSC, where Nunn was previously artistic director. However, its April opening was derailed when actress Frances Barber, who plays Goneril (and Arkadina in the Chekhov), was injured in a cycling accident (See News, 10 Apr 2007). Though its press performance delay to 31 May displeased critics at the time, it did nothing to diminish audience enthusiasm and demand for tickets.

McKellen plays the title role in King Lear and shares the role of Sorin with William Gaunt (Gloucester in the Shakespeare play) in The Seagull. The company also features: Romola Garai, Sylvester McCoy, Monica Dolan, Jonathan Hyde and Ben Meyjes.

First night critics were left amazed at Nunn’s “undoubtedly impressive” production, not least because of McKellen’s success in portraying the troubled King “with clarity and intelligence” as well as showing the character’s “emotional vulnerability”. However, critics also acknowledged that the production is no star vehicle alone, but ultimately the collective triumph of a talented ensemble that now “works like a well-tempered machine”. Amongst the supporting performances of note were Sylvester McCoy’s “beautiful” but “bumbling” Fool, Romola Garai's “highly affecting” Cordelia, Frances Barber “husky, hissing” Goneril and Jonathan Hyde’s “excellent” Kent.

  • Heather Neill on (four stars) - “The first thing to be said about Trevor Nunn’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company is that it is the clearest version of this play I have ever seen; the director has put all his energy into revealing rather than decorating the text. The result is an emotional journey of extraordinary power. We are spared nothing; even the hanging of Lear’s Fool (Sylvester McCoy as a diminutive professional comic) is made explicit. Cruelty is the norm in this tough world. King Lear is a star role and it is starrily filled on this occasion, but Ian McKellen is also part of an ensemble which - after many months playing in this country and on a world tour - works like a well-tempered machine … Frances Barber makes a lustful, self-serving Goneril … Monica Dolan’s Regan takes orgasmic pleasure in the blinding of Gloucester … Jonathan Hyde’s Kent is noble to the point of ultimate sacrifice for his master and Ben Meyjes’ Edgar is transformed from bookish reclusiveness to fighting machine.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars) - “This is a superlative performance from McKellen that has lost nothing with its transfer from Stratford to London. Its centre is Lear’s question: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ At the time the white-bearded king is putting a stool on trial in the belief that it’s his daughter Goneril. But McKellen delivers the line gently, quietly, and lingers over the word ‘hearts’ in a wondering, interrogative way, as if belatedly discovering that such an organ exists – and exists in him … Above all, McKellen manages to exude vindictive fury while finding inside himself a concern, a care, a love that’s evident when he kisses Sylvester McCoy’s bumbling old Fool, or cradles William Gaunt’s sobbing Gloucester, or, now radiating a touching simplicity, is reconciled with Romola Garai’s sturdy Cordelia ... Christopher Oram’s set, reminiscent of the balcony of an old theatre, cracks and splinters – symbolising the mind, family, kingdom, planet and universe that Nunn’s revival is evoking so memorably.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Trevor Nunn's tendency to long-windedness also encumbers his art. Brilliant though they often are, I have rarely seen a Nunn production that didn't feel at least 20 minutes too long … There is, however, no doubt that Nunn has developed an acting ensemble with strength in depth, while Christopher Oram's designs are at once simple, grand and evocative. Ian McKellen charts every stage of Lear's terrible journey with clarity and intelligence and his relationship with his spoon-playing Fool, acted with a beautiful mixture of sad wit and manifest love by Sylvester McCoy, forms the emotional heart of the play, although the awakening scene with Romola Garai's Cordelia is also highly affecting. But, while I have no objection to the scene in which McKellen's Lear exposes his private parts in the storm, the later moment when he clutches his crotch and pointedly says ‘every inch a king’, eliciting ribald laughter from the audience like some end-of-the-pier comedian, strikes me as unforgivably vulgar.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “This is a good Lear. Possibly a great Lear … As few who see it may be able to forget, it is also a Lear in which Britain's Leading Actor, one of those ageing thesps who loves to bare his dewlapped torso to national view, goes one stage further and drops his moorings altogether. Egad! Cometh the naked hour yesterday, eyeballs bulged … Dramatically, the nudity may not have been so huge, but Sir Ian is an immodest Lear in more serious ways … Sir Trevor Nunn melds the traditional with the gimmicky … Frances Barber gives Goneril a husky, hissing voice, dry as a cobra's hood. But do she and her stage sister Monica Dolan (Regan) overdo the malevolence? At times they were almost in ugly sister territory rather than affairs of geopolitics and competitive love for the bastard Edmund (Philip Winchester, whose verse-speaking is a touch jerky). The action rushes along, sometimes at the expense of audibility. An excellent Kent (Jonathan Hyde) and Edgar (Ben Meyjes) give it the feel almost of a thriller. Romola Garai's Cordelia is willowy and decent. Gloucester himself is given the full Stratford treatment by William Gaunt, an actor so orotund he could have a career in airline adverts.”

  • Claire Allfree in the Metro (four stars) - “Nunn’s King Lear hits the ground running with a magnificent opening scene and then goes from strength to strength … McKellen’s Lear excels at combining a myopic fury with an intellectual curiosity and emotional vulnerability. This is a Lear with a profound capacity for love … Other cast members bring a similar depth and texture. Monica Dolan’s Regan borders on the insane; Guy Williams is a richly nuanced Cornwall; Frances Barber’s Goneril is scheming, desperate and vengeful … Christopher Oram’s architectural set disintegrates bit by bit as the play’s world grows ever darker, suggesting the collapse not just of a once-great civilisation but of civilisation itself. There’s a state-of-the-nation urgency about this production and a terrible, unconsoling finality. Edgar’s last words, spoken in a godless place in which he is utterly alone, have rarely sounded so fearful and bleak.”

    - by Tom Atkins