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King Lear (Royal Shakespeare Company)

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4 Reviews

Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Trevor Nunn. The closing production of The Complete Works Festival is Shakespeare's epic tragedy, King Lear. Directed by former RSC Artistic Director Trevor Nunn and with Ian McKellen in the title role, this production has long been planned as the culmination of their RSC work together on Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Othello. Playing in repertoire with this production, and opening the Stratford 2007 Season, will be a second play, also directed by Trevor Nunn and performed by the same acting company. King Lear runs in repertoire at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from 24 March - 21 June 2007.

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    4 Reviews
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      29.05.2010 13:00
      Very helpful
      1 Comment



      A play wonderfully captured by the Royal Shakespeare COmpany

      I very recently went to Stratford Upon Avon - the birthplace of Shakespeare. The town itself reveres in the fact that the Bard was born their. Many of the pubs have names in order to honour the genius.

      Sir Ian McKellen was not, during this viewing of the production, playing King Lear, whose mentality slowly degrades throughout the play.

      The synopsis is on Wikipedia. It's much to long to fit in a short review which I hope to write while the experience is still fresh in my mind.

      The acting itself was remarkable - not unexpected as this is the RSC - but it is still amazing to watch the the expressions of horror written upon the actors faces so strongly.

      The on stage effects were excellent aswell. The light effects were excellent, and the orchestra playing the sound effects were able to change the mood instantaneously.

      I will own, however, that during the first half of the play, it was tedious at times. I'd never before read King Lear, and so I was lost at some points.

      What was also confusing were the costumes. The King and his Daughters appeared in what seemed like a suitable outfit for the time period, but then there were others characters dressed in what looked like 1900's army uniform and some which had rifles.

      Overall, however, the play was amazing. The actors were also managed to recreate the scene where the mans eyes are gauged out with a poker, a fabulously gruesome moment.

      I commend the performance of the actors, and the special effects team. However, if watching a play by the RSC for the first time and are not used to the language, choose something you've read before or can follow which isn't as confusing as King Lear.


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        15.06.2007 17:15
        Very helpful



        Without McKellen and McCoy, this would be Much Ado About Nothing

        Let’s get one thing straight. I’m going to try and get through this review WITHOUT mentioning a certain fact relating to the lead actor that virtually every professional review I’ve read of this play seems to be obsessed with,

        Having lived less than 20 miles of Stratford for 6 years, I felt I should finally drag myself off and see one of the Bard’s plays at his birthplace. I’m not the biggest Shakespeare fan, so to break my duck, I chose King Lear. The main attraction being that it starred Sir Ian McKellen - arguably the country’s finest living actor.

        First of all, a bit about the theatre. This production was in the Courtyard Theatre. At first glance it looks pretty much like any other theatre - a wide open entrance way populated by bars and programme and ice cream sellers. The actual performance area, however, is outstanding. Seats are arranged in a circular, tiered pattern, rising into a high funnel - much the same as theatres would have been in Shakespeare’s time. This gives a really intimate, yet still impressive feel, as the seats are right on top of the stage, set in the centre. This allows greater freedom to move around the stage and address different sections of the theatre (more on that later).

        Unfortunately, this does lead to problems! Initially very comfortable, the seats are not actually that big and quickly become a pain in the backside (literally). If you have (how can I put this delicately?) a person of the larger persuasion next to you it can be a bit cosy! You may also find that your view is blocked at times by the person in front - and when this happens to your neighbour, they think it perfectly acceptable to block YOUR view by leaning in front of you! So, all told, a very nice theatre, but one which has partially compromised practicalities for aesthetics.

        Anyway, enough about that. On with the show…

        First off, make sure you are aware of the basic plot before you go, otherwise you’ll struggle to keep up. The initial key events are set up with almost undue haste, throwing you very much in at the deep end. By doing this, the production puts itself at a disadvantage, as it fails to build the emotional impact so vital to the story. There’s really no sense of love between Lear (McKellen) and his youngest daughter, Cordelia (Romola Garai). This seriously hamstrings events straight from the off: you don’t really care when she is disinherited within minutes of the start of the play.

        Fortunately, this potential emotional chasm is more than adequately filled by Sir Ian McKellen, in a mesmeric performance. Throughout the course of the play, he undergoes pretty much every emotion known to man, and takes us with him on this emotional rollercoaster. Whether manic, sobbing, raging, laughing or defeated, it’s a superb, nuanced performance, brilliantly judged and memorably delivered. When he is brought on in a wheelchair at the end of the play, it is a truly tragic and desperate sight - exactly, I imagine, as Shakespeare wanted us to feel at this point.

        Of course, if this were purely McKellen’s performance, it would be little more than a vanity project (and in truth, at times it does smack a little of that). However, he is ably supported. Perhaps most surprising is Sylvester McCoy as Fool. Like McKellen, the former Dr Who gives a balanced, nuanced performance as an intelligent, capable and caring character. His Fool clearly loves his master and would do anything for him, and McCoy conveys this perfectly. Of course, being the Fool, he is also responsible for some of the performance’s lighter moments, played out in a memorable fashion.

        Jonathan Hyde is also hugely watchable as Kent - filling the stage with real presence whenever he is on. Ben Meyjes also turns in a good performance as loyal son Edgar - particularly when on the brink of madness.

        Some of the other characters fare less well, and this is particularly true of the female cast. The two “evil” sisters, Goneril and Regan (Frances Barber and Monica Dolan) feel very forced in their delivery and, at times, look surprisingly ill-at-ease. They lack the subtlety of McKellen and McCoy and occasionally are in serious danger of veering off into pantomime villain territory. One, in particular, makes so made so many hand gestures with every speech that I thought there was a real chance she might take off!

        Romola Garai is weak as Cordelia and has the annoying habit of leaning forward every time she spoke - giving the general impression of a slightly earnest field mouse. Weak voiced and slight, you certainly never believe her capable of leading men on a mission to save her father.

        The staging of the play is very good. The full length and width of the performance area is used to great effect, allowing a real sense of space and giving the actors the opportunity to address all parts of the audience. The downside, unfortunately, is that, due to the circular nature of the stage, at some points the actors have their backs to you, which makes it difficult to hear, thanks to the acoustics.

        Effects are limited, but highly effective, both subtle and spectacular. The scenery starts off grand and impressive before falling into disrepair and decay, reflecting Lear’s descent into madness. A spectacular thunderstorm is convincingly brought to life, complete with torrential, thunder and lightning, ultimately resulting in the collapse of part of the set. The hanging sequence is well staged too.

        One disappointing aspect was the swordfights. I fully understand that you cannot recreate on stage the sort of fights we are used to seeing on screen. They take months of training, clever editing and camera work. Even so, the swordfights were cumbersome, unconvincing and lacking excitement. Crucially, this meant you didn’t really care about the outcome and so lacked any kind of emotional punch.

        If you’re looking for a first class performance of King Lear, this latest interpretation may leave you a little disappointed, as it lacks the emotional impact the story should carry. If, on the other hand, you are interested in an acting master class from McKellen, then buy those tickets now!

        There you go. An entire review written without once mentioning the fact that Ian McKellen shows the audience his *ahem* “wizard’s staff”. See, it can be done.

        Oh… DAMN!

        More information
        King Lear is on at Stratford until 22 June, after which it goes on a world tour. It returns to the UK from 12 November for a limited run in London. More information on the play can be found at: http://www.rsc.org.uk/onstage/plays/3533.aspx, whilst details of venues for the world tour are available from: http://www.rsc.org.uk/WhatsOn/1215.aspx#us


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        • More +
          14.06.2007 21:24
          Very helpful





          _____The Review______
          As i'm a sixth form student and one of my subjects is English Literature, I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to see the rather talked about performance of King Lear in Stratford (The Royal Shakespeare company). So after watching this just last night, I thought it was about time I rated something a littler classier than my usual choices!

          I've never read King Lear before and didn't really know what it was about-just the bare basics. I'm also not the most Shakespear savvy person in the world, though saying that, I certainly grasped what was going on (even if you don't understand the language the actors were superb so you could tell what was going on merely from their actions and expression in their voice), so you don't really need to read the play to enjoy the performance. However, I would recommend having some idea of the plot, as it is very packed and a little complicated. So just for you:

          _______The Plot_______
          King Lear-a powerful and rather egotistical man decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia (Cordelia being his favourite). In order to decide who shall get what, King Lear tells each of his daughters to make a speech about how much they love him. However, though Goneril and Regan make 'heart felt' speeches about how much they love their father, Cordelia refuses to play his silly game. Lear, in a fit of anger (as he is certainly not used to being disobeyed) banishes her and divides his kingdom between his other two daughters.

          The King of France marries Cordelia, despite the fact that she now has nothing, and King Lear goes to stay with Goneril and Regan for two months in turn.

          Whilst staying there, Lear and his soldiers very much out stay their welcome, much to the displeasure of his daughters. So, they maliciously plot against him, causing him to eventually loose his sanity, as well as everything else.

          The Earl of Kent, who was banished for sticking up for Cordelia disguises himself as a servant, Caius, so that he can keep protecting Lear.

          Aswell as all of this, Goneril and Regan are both attracted to Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester and this isn't helped by Edmund's 'attraction' to both of them. Amongst this chaos, they are forced to deal with an army (led by Cordelia).

          In addition to all of this, there's also a subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar and Edmund. Edmund creates lies about his Edgar, who is forced into exile as a result of this. He poses as a poor, mad man in order to avoid detection.

          Gloucester is then horifically blinded by Regan's husband-the Duke of Cornwall. He is found by Edgar, whom of course, he cannot recognise.

          Lear at this point, has gone totally mad and Cordelia are briefly reunited and reconciled before the battle between Britain and France.

          Edgar then fights Edmund, wounding him (still in disguise). Goneril, who has poisoned Regan out of jealousy, kills herself upon seeing the death of her loved one.
          Edgar then removes his disguise, showing his true identity to Edmund and informs him that their father has just died.
          On hearing of his father's, and of Goneril and Regan's deaths, Edmund tells his brother his order to have the King and Cordelia murdered and gives orders for them to be reprieved.

          This reprieve unfortunatley comes too late.

          King Lear appears on stage with Cordelia's dead body in his arms.

          He then dies himself.

          (Sorry if i've got that wrong or muddled-there was a lot to follow!)

          _____The Perfomance______
          What can I say? Truly wonderous-the best performance I have ever seen in my life. I was in total awe, I really was.
          From the dramatic first scene which established the true power of King Lear and his riches to the poignant final scene which truly portrayed how far this now, sad, old man had fallen and how much he had lost.
          I also feel I should mention the amazing sword fights-the third being by far the best and truly had me on the edge of my seat.

          _____The Actors/Actresses______
          Special mention has to be given to, of course, King Lear-played by Sir Ian McKellen. It's quite rare when watching a play that you forget you're actually witnessing fiction. Sir Ian played his role flawlessly, creating a array of mingled pity, fear and fustration throughout the audience.
          Though this was a tradegy, the Fool, played by Sylvester McCoy, created some memorable laughs-one of my favourite scenes being where we are treated to the spoons!
          Kings Lear's daughters (sorry, I couldn't find out who they were played by) were also exceptional and deserve a special mention. The way they interacted, especially with each other, portrayed entirely convincing sisters.
          Everyone in this performance was truly amazing-but if I went through them each individually, i'd be here for ever!

          _____The Royal Shakespeare Company's Interpretation_____
          Trevor Nunn decided to set this play at the height of the Russian monarchy, to put the most possible emphasis on King Lear going from everything, to absolutley nothing; from splendor, riches and respect- to insanity, nakedness and shame.
          Another scene was also added. Though it was mentioned in Shakespeare's text (by King Lear) it was never actually written. The scene which i'm referring to is where the Fool is hung.

          ____Costumes and Special Effects____
          Again, because of the times the play was set, the costumes were actually amazing; the elaborate dresses worn by Lear's daughters down to the typical Russian soldier wear worn by Lear's men.
          This isn't exactly a special effects kind of play, but the lighting was more than adequate and the storm was truly amazing. I think any more than this would have cheapened the whole thing

          Well I have to mention the nudity don't I? Yes, that's right, Sir Ian gets his kit off! I had amazing seats and so saw....everything. However, it was handled very tastefully and I think it was necessary for the plot. The scene is so poignant and dramatic that to be honest, it doesn't really cause any shock at all. Just something to bear in mind if you want to take youngsters with you.
          There are some scenes which make you jump (for example during the lightening storm or the sudden gun shots).
          There is also some gore involved, but it's not too graphical.

          The whole running time is 3 hours long with an interval of 20 minutes, which is a little long but so much happens I guess it's necessary to fit it all in.

          My tickets were supposed to be £28 (had I not got them for free) and were very near the front, right in the centre.

          For dates and pricing information you can call the box office for availability on 0844 800 1110

          Or alternatively http://www.rsc.org.uk/WhatsOn/3533.aspx contains relevant information.

          ______Summed up______
          The whole experience was truely amazing, so if you can get your hands on some tickets, I really would recommend going.


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          • More +
            09.05.2007 14:30
            Very helpful



            The RSC's current production of Shakespeare's most monumental play

            To celebrate some Shakespearean anniversary or other, the Royal Shakespeare Company has staged all of Shakespeare’s plays over the last year in Stratford. They obviously needed something big for their finale, and this is it: King Lear, starring Ian McKellan and directed by Trevor Nunn. Not really something any self-respecting theatre-goer could miss; I hauled myself all the way up to Warwickshire to see it. Was it worth it? (Well, in a sense I couldn’t lose, as I went with my mum who very generously bought my ticket for me).

            It’s on in the Courtyard Theatre, which is a temporary replacement for the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre, currently being rebuilt (good thing too, it was lousy). The Courtyard is a very nice theatrical space with a stage that juts out into the audience, rather like the Swan (at Stratford) or the Young Vic (in London), but bigger. All the seats seem to have a pretty good view of the action and there was tons of leg room. This is important, as the play clocks in at three and a half hours (with interval). The lobby space is perhaps a bit small (King Lear will be playing to packed houses) and there could have been more toilets, but otherwise I liked the theatre a lot.

            But the production… something was missing. In discussing the play I’m going to liberally throw in plot spoilers. I make no apology for this; if you don’t know the plot, don’t go and see it. This is something that applies to almost all Shakespeare. You’ll enjoy yourself a lot more if you’ve read the play beforehand. No one, surely, is going to go and see this because they want to know what happens in King Lear; they’re going because they want to see how Ian McKellan plays it.

            (The plot, briefly – King Lear decides to retire and gives his kingdom to his two evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, his good daughter, Cordelia, having been banished. The two evil daughters drive their father to insanity. Meanwhile, Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, has his half-brother Edgar disinherited and his father tortured. It’s profoundly tragic.)

            The main attraction, of course, is McKellan. He’s possibly the greatest stage actor of his generation, and is now a proper star after all those Tolkien/X-Men films. He’s very good. He handles the changes from arrogance, through madness to broken semi-senility very adeptly. He’s appropriately monumental while throwing in enough human touches to make us believe we’re watching a real person. He does get his knob out, which might traumatise some, but what the hell. After all those asexual big-budget Hollywood roles he’s entitled to let it all hang out (and I was quite impressed. Every inch a king, as they say).

            The rest of the cast are a bit of a mixed bag, sadly. William Gaunt, best known for some dire 80s sitcoms, is very good as the Duke of Gloucester, making a rather straightforward part interesting. The three daughters are good too. But the rest of the cast felt a little uncertain – the interpretations of the parts were fine, but the line-readings often felt hurried and uncertain (not something you expect at the RSC). To be fair to them, I saw the production when it had just opened, so I daresay they’ll settle into what they’re doing as things progress. Also, the excellent Frances Barber, who was to play Goneril, has had to temporarily withdraw due to injury, which means the part is played by her understudy, Melanie Jessop. She’s good, but I guess it might have thrown the cast off their stride a bit. I didn’t recognise anyone else in it except for Sylvester McCoy, playing The Fool, a potentially good bit of casting rather spoiled by his insistence on playing the spoons *all the time*, thus drowning out much of his dialogue.

            But the production itself is disappointing. It’s quite good early on, neatly setting up Lear as an arrogant, self-deluded idiot who can’t see what’s obvious to everyone else. And the crucial ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ moment is played as a sudden whim of the King’s, rather than as a pre-planned bit of ritual, which gives it a different kind of impact than usual. But even in the early stages there are bits that aren’t right – the scenes between Edmund and Edgar don’t carry any real sense of urgency, for instance.

            The general lack of urgency is one of the biggest problems. The pacing of the play isn’t handled well. There’s a sword fight towards the end which goes on for much too long. It’s a well-choreographed fight, but by that point in the play it’s a bit of a side-issue. Really, the only reason for drawing out the sword fight would be if it ratcheted up the suspense. Every second spent fighting is a second wasted – Lear and Cordelia’s lives depend on the fight ending quickly, and the right person winning, but this doesn’t feel that way at all. It just feels like the director decided they should have a long sword fight at this point to pep things up a bit. This really gets to the heart of what was wrong – as I’ve said, everyone going to see the play probably knows what’s going to happen. But this feels like the characters do too – it feels like they’re drifting through the story, rather than have it happen to them. This, of course, means that when the play’s blasts of bleak weirdness occur, they have none of the impact they should have.

            Other problems involve interpretation. While I’m more than happy to concede that Trevor Nunn – a professional theatre director of immense experience and formidable reputation – knows a lot more than me about the play, I found some of his decisions absolutely baffling. He puts way too much emphasis on the fact that the characters in the play worship a pantheon of pre-Christian gods. This isn’t really *that* important, but it seems that Nunn has decided to make this the hook on which to hang this production. Unfortunately this means that characters frequently pray to their gods by looking upwards and waving their arms in the air. This is something that *might* have worked in, say, 70s Dr Who. Here it looks silly, and significantly reduces the power of the final scene of the play, which ought to be devastating, and maybe would have been if I hadn’t been giggling so much. Trevor Nunn’s a great one for attention to detail, but this is a big mistake.

            There are all kinds of other little niggles. One character gets hung on stage – something for which there is scant basis in the play, and seems to have been done just to provide something exciting before the interval. Late on in the play, when everything’s moving pretty fast, one of the main characters dies offstage – this was fumbled, to the extent that I didn’t even notice the lines that mention it. The blinding of Gloucester was a *huge* let down. I like to see gore - actual eyeballs being thrown around. Here we just had lots of people surround William Gaunt and him screaming a bit. I’ve seen the RSC do full-on eye-gouging, tongue-ripping and liver removal on a much smaller stage. Gloucester’s blinding is essential – if nothing else, it keeps the school parties awake. This was a cop-out. Worst of all was Kent’s final exit – he’s going off to die of wounds he received in the final battle, but here he exits purposefully with a revolver, obviously intending to take his own life. This is appalling in every way and totally contradicts everything else Kent does in the entire play. There are lots of other details that annoyed me, but listing them all would be pointless.

            Anyway, this is playing in Stratford until late June, after which it goes on tour. It might have sold out in Stratford (the website seems to suggest it has – tickets start at about £10 if any are still available). It’s just about worth seeing because Ian McKellan is great, and I doubt he’ll be playing Lear again. But this should have been an epic, must-see production, for all kinds of reasons, and instead was a bit of a let down.


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