Tickets for Ian McKellen’s Lear are changing hands for inordinate sums on ebay. Pay whatever you must. This is a performance not to be missed.

The stage at the New London Theatre mimics the thrust of the Courtyard in Stratford, where this production began. A background of seedy opulence, perhaps a theatre, perhaps a palace in decline, lowers over Christopher Oram’s Russian-flavoured design. This sense of the end of an Imperial era might be caught from the play in repertoire with this King Lear - Chekhov’s The Seagull - but it is not too insistently pursued.

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.

Nunn has emphasised Shakespeare’s interest in what is natural, on the nature of human nature. While other directors have found Christian redemption, he sees (and this is expanded on in an illuminating discussion between Nunn and the scholar James Shapiro quoted in the programme) a dismissal of religion which at the time when Shakespeare was writing would have been daring indeed. If everything depends on human relationships, the breakdown of love and respect within families becomes ever more painful. Goneril and Regan fulfil their expected roles in the opening scene of pomp and pretentiousness; Cordelia, behaving more naturally, is punished for undaughterly behaviour.

Frances Barber makes a lustful, self-serving Goneril who is nevertheless deeply hurt by her father’s horrible curse of barrenness. Monica Dolan’s Regan takes orgasmic pleasure in the blinding of Gloucester. Both, given the chance, behave with their father’s imperiousness. Sweeping about the stage in their gorgeous silk gowns, these two exemplify with fierce accuracy the extremes of filial ingratitude.

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. It’s typical of the production that, although he defeats Edmund (Philip Winchester) in heroic fashion, he has to be dragged away from attacking his opponent’s eyes in recompense for the blinding of the father they share. Edgar becomes Poor Tom so completely that it’s possible to believe that his father would not recognise him and William Gaunt’s Gloucester is a fine foil for McKellen.

And at the centre of proceedings is McKellen himself. He begins as a physically frail monarch who has little experience of anything except getting his own way. His dawning understanding of what it is to be human, which leads both to his ability truly to love Romola Garai’s fervent Cordelia and to his journey through madness to enlightenment, provides an emotional rollercoaster for the audience. The few moments of nudity are essential to the expression of his complete vulnerability, a bare forked animal portrayed here by a prince among performers.

- Heather Neill


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from June 2007 and this production’s original run in Stratford-upon-Avon.

So here it is at last - the distinguished thing. Nine weeks later than promised after a fall put co-star Frances Barber out of action, the overwhelming question inevitably is: has this King Lear been worth the wait?

Director Trevor Nunn - who scaled the theatrical heights here more than 30 years ago when he worked with Ian McKellen on the landmark RSC production of Macbeth - does not storm the heavens here. But this is a fine production, beautifully designed and lit, with a commanding central performance by McKellen.

In a prefatory scene freighted with pomp and religiosity, McKellen, resembling a Russian Orthodox priest, blesses the assembled court. Lear, we surmise, is not a worldly man. And so it proves. The question "who am I?" becomes in this production the leitmotif as Lear embarks on a journey of discovery and enlightenment.

As has been pointed out, there are many Lears and inevitably not all of them can be realised by a single performance. Ten years ago, Ian Holm gave us a man with deep-banked fires. McKellen here is far milder, as the storm scene demonstrates. But he beautifully charts the king's spiralling descent into madness and pathos.

Like Holm, McKellen follows the logic of the text by baring himself, stripping away the remnants of dress and decorum as he searches for "the thing itself".

There's a sense of strength throughout the casting with fine supporting performances by Jonathan Hyde as Kent, Julian Harries as Albany, Guy Williams as Cornwall and solid ones by Barber as Goneril, Monica Dolan as Regan and William Gaunt as Gloucester. I was less taken with Sylvester McCoy's Fool, too many of whose lines pass for too little, a consequence both the rapidity of their delivery and the decision to set many of them to music.

The production suffers somewhat from the thrust design of the stage with the action often feeling a little removed. But Christopher Oram delivers a literally, mightily impressive set, a colonnaded balcony festooned with scarlet swags, while Neil Austin's atmospheric and beautifully modulated lighting is immaculate.

This King Lear is better by several country miles than the RSC's last two productions of the play. Ultimately, it may not wring the withers but it is a substantial achievement.

- Peter Wood