I had to go to Amazon’s UK site to get this, but I am the proud owner of Ian McKellen's masterful King Lear on DVD.
When I was in college and just blossoming into the Shakespeare Geek I am today, I got Sir Laurence Olivier’s Lear on VHS. Truthfully, it was over my head. I don’t think I ever finished it. Partly because I didn’t understand it, to be sure, but also because Olivier was nothing to me but a name. He was a good actor because I was told he was a good actor.
McKellen, on the other hand, might well be one of today’s greatest living actors. He’s Gandalf, for heaven’s sake. And if that’s not the particular style of geek you follow, he was Magneto as well. But check his Shakespeare resume: Richard III, Richard II, Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth…the list goes on. So it’s only reasonable that he finally tackle King Lear, and boy does he deliver.
I’m tempted to say this should be a one man show, Sir Ian McKellen Does Selections from King Lear – but that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the cast, who are superb. It’s just that he is so very very good whenever he’s on stage, that he’s hard to see anything else. When he’s not, you hope the plot will move forward until he comes back.
Some of the directorial choices were interesting to me, right off the bat. For instance, Cordelia. The first word out of Cordelia’s mouth is when she says “Nothing, my lord.” But the thing is, she doesn’t say it with any sort of fear or concern, she says it in a very patronizing way, like “You silly little man, of course I have nothing to say, don’t you realize that my sisters just fed you a giant load of bull?” I was a bit surprised at that. But it quickly turns around as she realizes that she’s incurred the dragon’s wrath, and in no time she’s got more that “What have I done?” look like she should have.
McKellen does a great angry Lear. He screams at people, and while doing it he manages to mock them, letting us well know that he’s well in control of what he is yelling, to whom, and why. The way he turns on Kent, particularly as he delivers the “this shall not be revoked” line, you fully believe that you have pissed off the king, and you’re going to pay for it.
Let’s take a moment to talk about Goneril. If we were giving out Oscars for this sort of production she’s a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress. I am not kidding when I told people on Twitter that whenever Goneril’s on the scream I kept screaming “YOU EFFING B*TCH!”, my wife can vouch for that. She gets this Lady Macbeth sort of scheming look on her face, like she’s got the whole thing planned from the very beginning. During the big confrontation where both sisters are on stage and they’ve driven their father into the beginnings of madness by taking away his soldiers and kicking him out of their houses, there’s an agonizing scene where Regan, who shows tremendous guilt in the early scenes, goes to comfort her father – and behind his back, Goneril puts her arm between the two, so no one touches Lear at all. All the while with that “all going to plan” look on her face, the effing b*tch.
Back to McKellen. As he starts to lose it, Sir Ian brings some interesting mannerisms to the old king. He carries a handkerchief and periodically wipes his nose. I guess that’s to show that he’s not well? And he tends to do this thing with his index finger, sometimes rubbing his nose, sometimes twitching it in front of him like he’s pointing at something that nobody sees but him. They are minor things, but they stuck out to me in a sort of “Why did he choose to do that?” way, which breaks suspension of disbelief for me, so I felt the need to point it out.
In general, though, the man is an acting god. Whenever he’s on stage, it’s like “Ok, everybody else sit down and watch, the master is at work.” The storm? Come on. I remember when I saw a live Lear, with a timid king who bargained with the elements not to hurt him. I came back disappointed, that’s not what I thought. I wanted someone screaming at the heavens, and that’s exactly what this production delivered. I could watch that over and over.
I’m trying to think of the defining moments in the show, but it’s so hard to pick. It’s all good, when he’s on stage. There are some bits I did not love. When Gloucester loses his eyes, in particular, was a bit of a bloodbath. I mean, sure, it has to be a gross scene. But the way Regan cackled with glee was a little over the top for me.
The ending was actually a disappointment for me. This was not a movie version of a play – this was a play on film. Even though there was scenery, and outside really was outside with real rain, you never forget that you are progressing scene by scene, with character entrances and exits as expected. So the final scene, just before Lear’s “Howl, howl!” entrance, just does this theatre thing that made me feel like I was sitting in an audience watching people on stage, because only actor, not real people, would do something like that.
On that note, I have to say that I don’t find Lear’s final entrance, carrying Cordelia’s body, to be the most gutwrenching scene in the play. Maybe I haven’t seen it done enough. Sure, true, I almost lost it when he curls her lifeless face up to his ear and asks her “What? what’s that?” and tells the others that she was always a very quiet child. But I guess because I know what is coming, it’s not as painful as it could be.
No, to me the agonizing parts came prior – his first reunion with Cordelia, the “No cause” moment. Then later, after they are captured, and he’s willing to go peacefully to prison, where he will spend his remaining days laughing and telling stories with her. He is back with her, she has forgiven him, he is happy. Knowing what comes next? That, that is the agonizing part. That is where you get the briefest glimpse that the story could still have a happy ending. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who has never seen the story and does not know what comes next.
What can I say? It makes me want to see more King Lear, it makes me want to see more Shakespeare, it makes me want to see more Sir Ian. I’m tempted to start it up and watch it again, but I’ve got a boatload of other stuff I have to do, too. Maybe I’ll keep it as a treat for myself. ;)