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Theatre Review McKellen’s tour de force mesmerises

King Lear
Duke of York’s Theatre
London WC 2
★★★★

HOWEVER many times I see King Lear, my first instinct is always to marvel yet again at the wild and fearless excesses of the original play.

It takes us right to the sharp end of human life where power crumbles to nothing, where the blind lead the blind, where folly rules and where the Fool — a creature of oblique instincts, waywardness and caprice — stumbles on essential truths that seem somehow off limits to the reasoned mind.

It’s a powerhouse of imagination and an unparalleled penetration of the human condition in a godless and structure-less world.

And this production, fresh from Chichester, gives us a lead performance that is as note-perfect as you will ever see.

Ian McKellen played the role a decade ago but wanted another shot in a more intimate environment. The result is that he is able to speak the words conversationally, cutting straight to the heart of each audience member as if in private confidence.

And, as with all great actors, he is able to display, as if for our own personal gratification, all the intricate workings of his character’s conflicted mind and soul.

He speaks the lines with the easy delivery of the seasoned professional while conveying multilayered meaning. He brings us subtle mood shifts and variations, line by line, in pitch and tone and ranges from humble self-awareness and childish simpering to spontaneous arrogance and regal posturing.

At the same time, his intellectual and emotional intelligence binds all into the pathetic decline of one man into dotage. Moments of stark lucidity — “I did her wrong” — or of extreme and ultimate grief — “Howl! Howl! Howl!” — convey precisely the moment-by-moment imbalance in a man’s mind between clarity and unthinking spontaneous gabble.

Jonathan Mumby brings us a beautifully paced production with a few nods to modernity in costume design and in the delightful casting of Sinead Cusack as Kent.

The scene when the characters become plastered with rain particularly engages the senses and there are memorable images of processions through the audience on an elevated traverse stage, a bleak and ill-formed tree like a gallows and a far too realistic hospital bed in which Lear lies back gaga — all thanks to designer Paul Wills. The cast form a superb team.

But this is unashamedly a star vehicle and McKellen is glorious.

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