‘King Lear’ review – Ian McKellen plays the tragic role with blistering emotion and bravado

McKellen delivers a bold and striking performance as the ill-fated king in this epic Shakespearean tragedy – ★★★★☆

McKellen gazes out into the audience after an incredible three-hour performance at the theatre where he made his debut 54 years ago. There’s a feeling that this is a standout role in the actor’s incredible career – a bittersweet, personal reflection on a phenomenal acting history.

Ian McKellen (left) and Danny Webb (right) deliver bold performances as Lear and Gloucester respectively. Photo: Johan Persson.

“I’m not the first actor who has wanted to return to this play, as if unfinished business,” he writes in the official programme. “Perhaps it’s just that the closer you get to the King’s age, the more telling it becomes – for some, more a therapy than a job.” It’s a sentiment present on the stage – a portrayal which feels incredibly personal and reminiscent.

The production, a West End transfer from Chichester Festival Theatre, is one bravely directed by Jonathan Munby. While the first half of the production is a slow establishment of the main characters, the mid-show cliffhanger and second half is where this modernised retelling really comes to life. Ben and Max Ringham’s harsh, drum-heavy score brings a sense of urgency to the story, and Lucy Cullingford and Kate Waters choreography work – as movement director and fight director respectively – maintain the tense and eccentric tones of Shakespeare’s work.

It’s a sense of elegance that also comes with the performances, too. James Corrigan’s Edmund is one of cunning villainy, brilliantly expressive to the extent that his lines are completely accessible to a modern audience. Luke Thompson (Edgar) and Danny Webb (Gloucester) work perfectly as individuals, but also as a duo, effortlessly bouncing off each other’s lines to create two broken characters worthy of the audience’s empathy.

With immersive set designs from Paul Wills – to the extent that even the fake rain smells of petrichor – King Lear feels more like a cinematic film than a stage production (one images those who saw the recent NT Live showing of the play will agree). Yet, of course, theatregoers would expect nothing less for such a legendary star of both stage and film.

King Lear is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3 November. 16 to 25 year olds can purchase £5 tickets on the day through the Chichester Theatre’s Prologue scheme.

Advertisements