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King Lear Review - The Duke of York's Theatre

11 July - 3 November 2018

Standard tickets from £69.00

16-25 Scheme (STUDENTS): £5 if you queue early


William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ has stood the test of time, moving and resonating with audiences both when it was written at the beginning of the seventeenth century and nowadays. The Duke of York Theatre’s production, directed by Jonathan Munby, does nothing but solidify its significance and impact. This Tragedy, about a King that divides his kingdom between his three daughters and then goes on to face the consequences of that decision, offers a harrowing, devastating contemplation on the infirmities of old age, the consequences of hubris, and the true nature of mankind.

The play is first and foremost overwhelmingly accurate to the original text, yet the modernity of the set, costumes and music further accentuates the appropriateness of seeing ‘King Lear’ today. William Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ rather sycophantically, in affirmation of James I’s decision to unite the kingdoms of Britain. One cannot help but notice the indication of the dangers of splitting apart unions, particularly with Brexit looming not five months away. Perhaps more obviously, the play addresses the consequences of hubris, and with Donald Trump as President of the United States, the terrifying connotations are clear. The line “the time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind… It’s the tragedy of our times that lunatics must lead the blind,” (Act 4, Scene 1) is perhaps more applicable now than it was then. There has never been a better time to see ‘King Lear.’

The star of the show in undoubtedly Ian McKellen. His talent is undeniable and his performance is a masterpiece of titanic proportion. The subtlety with which he portrays Lear’s old age and descent into madness is strikingly poignant and by the final Act, when Lear holds Cordelia’s body in his arms, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Another notable mention is Kirsty Bushell, whose Regan is both convincing and completely terrifying. Her violent sexuality and viciousness are played with with a natural subtlety, and you can't help but being enraptured by her. Danny Webb’s Gloucester was devastating. I must admit that when I read King Lear for the first time, Gloucester was not a character that I much sympathised with. However, Webb’s portrayal, particularly in Act 4 and 5, was emotive and heart-breaking.

The production itself has its flaws, but the costumes, sound and lighting were not part of it. The costumes were fundamental in symbolising Lear and Edgar’s descent into madness, as well as Regan’s promiscuous sexual appetite. The lighting was concise and almost cinematic at points, emphasising the dark tone of the play effectively. The music was compelling, enhancing the modern and dark elements of this production. The music during the battle scene especially brought a frightening urgency that conveyed exactly the significance of what was happening. The set itself was simple and served the plot well. It’s simplicity allowed for no distractions, particularly during the Storm scene, which only worked in its favour. However, more dedicated Shakespeare lovers may find some of the modern elements too much: for example, Lear being in a hospital bed attached to a drip. As well as this, Part One was very long and the interlude came as a welcome relief from a Tragic, heavy plot.

By the conclusion of the play, the audience has experienced a plethora of emotions and the catharsis of ‘King Lear’ is especially conflicting for them - the stage is covered with bodies, yet this ending is what ultimately brings a degree of stability to the kingdom. The purpose of the subplot is perhaps not clear for those who have not studied Shakespeare until the final Act, but evokes similar emotions of catharsis.

The effect of this production is undeniable and the audience’s feelings fluctuate throughout, which is an ode to the beauty and longevity of Shakespeare. Ian McKellen’s performance is one for the books: the foolish, selfish King of Act One, who is full of hubris and evokes little love or sympathy from the audience transforms throughout the play. His anagnorisis in Act 3 is harrowing and heart-breaking. The calibre of the cast is undeniable and is what ultimately makes this production so memorable.

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