LONDON—Most of us cower from signs of old age, we shrink from our mortality. Sir Ian McKellen has chosen the opposite course, signing off from a lifetime of Shakespeare on stage by embracing his frailty in one of the most compelling performances of his career.
By warning us in advance that this would be his last major Shakespearean role, the 79-year-old actor exposed his enervation and was thus freed to fully embody King Lear in one of the great examinations of aging ever written.
From the moment he labors onto the stage at London's Duke of York's Theatre, through the audience along a raised ramp that runs to the back of the stalls, painfully climbing the steps to the dais from which he will deliver his first speech, it is clear that McKellen’s Lear will be feeble of body as well as mind.
The big screen star of the mega-franchises Lord of the Rings, X-Men and The Hobbit was cast for his first West End role at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1964. He is back on the same stage more than half a century later.
In one of the only interviews he has conducted for King Lear, he confirmed to the BBC that this would be the end of his Shakespeare: “That’s it.”
McKellen's Lear stands on the platform for his opening salvo against his daughter Cordelia with the theater rapt even though he cuts a diminished figure. Above his head hangs a vast portrait in oils; the once powerful king looms above this man who is now weakened by age.
His majesty is further traduced by the storm which dominates the third act. In this West End transfer of the Chichester Festival Theatre’s dark production, the tempest is real. Water cascades onto the stage, soaking the excellent cast to the skin.
McKellen pulls open his shirt in the rain to reveal the torso of a man nearing his 80th birthday, the imperfections of age amplified by the athletic frame of Edgar, played energetically and impressively by Luke Thompson. At times Lear paws longingly at the younger man’s lithe body.
His torment is visceral—the clenched fists of frustration project his despair at the unravelling of his senses and perceived ingratitude of his daughters and yet there is nothing bombastic about the performance. The extraordinary breadth of Lear’s emotions are captured carefully and precisely by a master of his craft.
Fifty years after making his Shakespearean debut, McKellen tells the audience. “Here I stand, your slave; A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man.”
He is beloved in the West End rather than despised, of course, and with this choice of finale he has also proved himself to be far smarter than Lear, who suffers the indignity of being told: “Thou should not have been old, before thou be wise.”
There are overwhelming sequences in this production when the cast seems to fill the entire stage —whether it be with heavily armed soldiers or dancing revellers—but the best moments of director Jonathan Munby’s excellent interpretation of Lear are undoubtedly the pared-back scenes dominated by McKellen.
Not to say that the rest of the cast don’t deliver, Claire Price is perhaps a little underpowered as Goneril plotting to seize control of the kingdom, but Lear’s other daughters Kirsty Bushell (Regan) and Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Cordelia) hold their own as they strive against their father’s vacillating demands.
Uwajeh, in particular, brings a freshness to the stage particularly when she returns in the second half seeking vengeance in camo gear with her band of modern-day soldiers and their semi-automatic weapons.
Paul Wills’ gloomy set design is deceptively simple with wood paneled walls that are still capable of great drama—from the portrait behind Lear at the start of the play to the stunning white cliffs of Dover at the denouement.
Sir Anthony Sher took his Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear to the BAM theater in Brooklyn earlier this year, after a blockbuster run in Britain. Theatergoers in New York should pray that McKellen will be able—and inclined—to follow 100 gruelling 3-hour performances in London with one last hurrah on Broadway.
The next generation of Royal Shakespeare Company alums, including David Oyelowo (Selma), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) and Damian Lewis (Homeland) show there is a stellar new bank of talent, who grew up on stage, ready to continue in the footsteps of Shakespearean icons McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart and Dame Judi Dench.
The same cannot yet be said for the under-40s. The newest British acting stars have been able to reach Hollywood via television roles and more modern West End stage productions rather than learning from—and enduring—decades on stage with Shakespeare.
McKellen told the BBC he was happy to pass on the Bard baton to this younger generation.
“I don’t want to play Falstaff, I don’t understand Falstaff at all. I don’t want to play Henry IV, that’s another part, I suppose, I could still do at my age, but the rest has passed me by now,” McKellen said. “My female colleagues, contemporaries, have had to face the fact that there’s no Shakespeare left to do. And anyway there’s stacks of other actors who want to play these parts and good luck to them.”