The time-honored adage about not going home again tends not to apply to actors doing Shakespeare, many of whom like to return to the classical well to test their chops afresh against these great canonical roles. And so it is with Ian McKellen, who first played Lear a decade ago for the director Trevor Nunn as part of a world tour, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, that conceived the play in comparatively epic, oracular terms.
And here McKellen is back in the same part, albeit in the very different circumstances of a London theater – the Duke of York’s, where the Tony-winning actor in fact made his West End professional debut in 1964 – a fraction the size of some of the musical-friendly houses to which the Nunn Lear travelled. (This staging was first seen in the studio-sized Minerva, at Chichester, south of London.) Scaled back to seat 500 or so per performance, with the actor doing six shows a week across five days, the intimate staging constitutes both a wished-for corrective on the part of its leading man (the previous venues, he writes in the program, were “too uncongenially spacious”) and an opportunity to reclaim the conversational value of Shakespeare – which, indeed, is much in vogue of late.
One can point to Ian Holm and, even more memorably, Derek Jacobi as two contemporaries of McKellen who have reclaimed this part, and play, from the inside by delivering it up within confines more suitable to rumination and reflection than the traditional Lear-like roar. And McKellen, to the credit of both his own natural impulses and an astute director in Jonathan Munby, never once gives the impression of tilling familiar theatrical soil. I did laugh at the moment, well into the production, where his Lear starts to strip off, only to be stopped mid-action by those around him: a possible inside joke that will most engage those who remember this actor baring his soul, and more, on previous outings. (Not to be outdone, McKellen does grab conspicuously at one point at his crotch. The actor, ever the rascal, has surely at this point earned the right to a physical embellishment or two.)
The look of the production moves from a sort of portrait-laden, clearly hierarchical realm – this is a Lear accustomed, one feels, to salutes – to the sort of non-specific Beckettian clearing that has been a Lear constant from Peter Brook onwards, the recent Deborah Warner/Glenda Jackson take on this same play included. (Jackson, several years McKellen’s senior, will be Broadway’s next Lear, due to open in the spring.) The result puts the emphasis on the interplay between the characters as they move further towards a merciless cosmos as opposed to dwarfing their actions in some grander visual scheme that, during the storm scene in particular, can in other productions bring an actor to grief.
Nearer to Lear’s own age now than he was a decade ago, McKellen is especially compelling when warding off the threat of madness that comes to overtake this once-mighty, now-foolish monarch as he achieves old age without the requisite wisdom that by rights should accompany the advancing years. If I find any fault in a near-flawless star turn, it’s merely that the actor for whatever reason doesn’t prompt tears in the way that the most immediately affecting Lears have in my experience, amongst whom I include Jacobi, for starters, but also Robert Stephens some years back for the RSC. (Glenda Jackson was pretty wonderful as well.)
The supporting cast could spruce up their diction, Luke Thompson’s Edgar especially, but it is packed out with talent that finds a first among equals in the ever-terrific Sinead Cusack, whose female Kent registers in this context as the play’s very own resident Paulina, from The Winter’s Tale – a moral arbiter whom Cusack has in fact played under the guidance of Sam Mendes. There is ace work, too, from Kirsty Bushell as a Regan who seems positively to exult in the prospect, and then the actuality, of violence, and James Corrigan as an unusually thoughtful Edmund, who presents the fact of his “bastardy” as if arguing his case before the implicit judge that is the audience.
Still, there’s no denying whom the public is flocking to see, and why the House Full sign is on view nightly outside the playhouse. And when McKellen emerges for his solo bow, following another go at what he has strongly intimated may be his Shakspearean swan song, the audience rises as one to applaud. The wonder, to paraphrase Edgar’s final remarks, is that McKellen has done so much for the theater and for so long. “We that are young” – or, indeed, any age – will surely not see this actor’s like again soon, in which case McKellen, unlike Lear, is exiting the classical stage precisely as he entered it: in full command of a power that it has been a privilege over nearly 40 years to behold.