This adaptation of King Lear brings forward a sense of realism and brutality to it's telling, something far removed from McKellen's previous portrayal of Shakespeare's tragic monarch
Shakespeare and the numerous adaptations of his works have been a fixture of British theatre for centuries. Whilst many performances have tried to recreate the wordsmith’s pieces as the original may have been displayed on the stage, there are also those that portray them in a more modern perception. Romeo + Juliet is perhaps the most well-known, and The Lion King is practically the plot of Hamlet, but a more recent adaptation of King Lear saw an adaptation that brought reality and modern politics to the stage.
After a short run at The Minerva in Chicester, the show itself was already recorded for a National Theatre Live showing in cinemas across the country during autumn 2018. Many went into this run of performances believing it to be Ian McKellen’s final time on the stage, and a few performances were cancelled when the actor tripped and injured his foot on the London Underground (though he held informal Q&A sessions in place of those performances for those in the audience.)
This particular telling of William Shakespeare’s play replaces the pagan setting for something more modern-day; armour is replaced with camouflaged attire and guns instead of swords. And in typical fashion for the theatre, it is full of small details and additions which make sense. for a long-standing country that Lear rules over is given a national anthem, giving some weight to both the history and the decisions that will unfold over the next three hours. But then we have clothing details: Goneril begins with blue but moves to a white with grey shoe ensemble while trying to appeal to her father – bringing to mind Cordelia’s true honesty and devotion. When Goneril gets what she wants, she changes back to her original colours.
Honestly, there were parts of the show that were difficult for me to watch; Act Three scenes Four and Five are perhaps Lear’s lowest moments and the high point of his ‘madness’. To portray the old King’s madness with such a beloved actor, who fans familiar with his work might see as good as a grandparent, is difficult viewing. This isn’t Gandalf, and far closer to watching a loved one with dementia, which just breaks your heart.
Seeing these characters in this live setting gives it more life and consideration than mere words on the page. you really feel for trials and tribulations, even if you don’t completely agree with motives or methods. Reading the play for my A-Level, I loathed Goneril and Regan, but here, I can find complete sympathy. Edmund really brought forth the hidden anger and how the man had felt being scorned by the world; with the odd humorous beat thrown in. He is full of fury and the need to prove himself better than what destiny apparently has for him … but cutting your palm open still hurts, regardless of who you are. The self-censoring of a swear sent ripples of laughter through the audience.
This particular performance also filled several gaps in the original play that were left unanswered, such as what happens to certain characters like The Fool (who is killed by Edmund) whether through death or arrest. I’ve always loved how different adaptations of Shakespeare can give us different answers, and King Lear is no exception.
And while the stage and theatre itself were deliberately chosen for its small intimate feeling during performances, almost like you are one of those “wanton gods” who watch them die “for sport”. A morbid curiosity in their beauty and their pain, classically performed by a combination of both world-renowned and less familiar names both on stage and behind the screen made this something memorable. Two years since I had the opportunity to see its beauty, and I still savour the memory.
The performance was recorded for National Theatre Live, so it’s still possible to watch – but nothing matches the experience of actually being there.