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Saturday 1st December 2007
Theatre Review | KING LEAR | RSC @ New London Theatre

Production (transfer): King Lear
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Producer: Royal Shakespeare Company
Venue: New London Theatre
Address: Drury Lane, London WC2B 5PW
Box Office: +44 (0)844 412 4654
Dates: 14 November 2007 - 12 January 2008 (in repertoire with The Seagull)
Opened: 28 November 2007
Buy Theatre Tickets from Ticketmaster
Reviewed by Joanna Bacon
King Lear opens with a big organ. We know from the Old Vic panto that Ian McKellen has a massive sense of humour, but this of course is not a panto, and the deafening sound of the organ at the top of the production accompanies a dumb show of the pantomime of pomp and procession which is Church and State. It is a brilliant start and segues into scene one giving the feeling that we are zooming in behind the scenes, having watched the spectacle, to see what makes this state tick. Shakespeare does this himself, of course, by establishing the public and private spheres before the royal family appear, and the wonderful prologue only enhances that intent.

Watching McKellen here is quite simply witnessing a masterclass in acting. Elderly and wilful, mischievous but increasingly frail, his Lear at this point has touchingly made notes on his idea to divide the kingdom. He has two little cushions where Cordelia's suitors, France and Burgundy 'here are to be answered'. He acts with his left foot as he awaits Cordelia's answer. He uses the crown as 'nothing'. All the detail is bliss, and this is only scene one! It gets better.

Sylvester McCoy's Fool is both sharp and tender, telling the King the harsh truth as well as being funny and comforting. He deliciously produces a pair of spoons from a tiny violin case and proceeds to play them with great solemnity. He plays them again on Kent's head while he is in the stocks! He brings every image to life, even the snails' antennae. Ingeniously hilarious with an egg, he then kisses the King's pate with the line about giving his golden one away, a sad and terrible fact. And he plays the audience like a dream, without us losing belief in the on-stage scenario.

There is so much detail to delight us: Edgar thinking on his feet as he becomes Poor Tom, Oswald's 'oh no' from the floor before his fight with Kent, Melanie Jessop's Gloucester servant covering the drunken, brazen Regan outside afterwards, and Albany's hearing about Edgar and the banished Kent in total wonderment at the end of the play.

Another thing I love about Trevor Nunn's production is that without losing any of the truth and sadness of the themes of betrayal Ė the pain of having a thankless child, the pain of becoming old, frail, even mad Ė all the jokes are great! The joint-stool is even great, and I am sure it is the first time I have ever laughed in Edgar and Edmund's scenes. There are some very funny jokes involving specs, both here and in The Seagull, which is playing in repertoire with King Lear.

As it is with The Seagull, so Christopher Oram's design here is superb. A crumbling palace, still partly draped in scarlet velvet, falls further apart as Lear descends into madness. An anachronistic scaffold emerges for the brutal and senseless hanging of the Fool. Goneril and Regan lie dead on stretchers at either side of the stage for the last scene in the play, making the situation even more awful to behold.

The sound design is very imaginative too. At one point, accompanied by a beautiful lighting effect and the shadow of people dancing at the party inside, Kent insults Oswald to beautiful music; a moment that usually goes for very little washes over all our senses. There's even a seagull, as Edgar describes the cliff view. And all those dogs: as Edgar becomes Poor Tom, as Regan enters Gloucester's home, when the 'realms of Albion come to great confusion', and as the fool is hanged while the ramparts cave in. And at the end, beyond the dogs, a wolf howls in the distanceÖ.

I have seen this play many times. I love it. This is the first time I have seen it since my father died, so I was fully expecting to be affected by it on a personal level, and weep in all my usual places. As I said earlier, Ian McKellen's playing of Lear is absolute bliss to watch, and he did indeed move me to tears, but every aspect of the production is so exciting and full of imagination, of life. Don't go and see it, because I want that ticket!

Joanna Bacon © 2007

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