King Lear for the Theatrically Illiterate: Thoughts on Ian McKellen, Dementia and Special Effects

Walking into the Duke of York Theatre, I knew exactly two things about Shakespeare’s famous tragedy: that the plot was about a king’s slow descent into madness, and that the main actor, Sir Ian McKellen, was revered by audiences both in the UK and abroad.

It had taken a lot of convincing for me to wake up early and queue at 7 a.m. for day seats, a true achievement for me as I usually leave my flat at  9 a.m. for my 9 a.m classes . The hype around the show was real, and as I sat down in the front row (day seats are amazing!), I was very curious to see what I would think of the play. Let me cut to the chase – the three hours of queuing were worth it.

Not knowing anything about the play was refreshing: I felt like I was watching King Lear like Shakespeare’s first audience once had, with no preconceived ideas about what was going to happen. In fact, my friend and I spent the whole performance turning towards each other with gaping mouths, absolutely astonished at the different turns of events. This particular production was especially effective into easing us into the oftentimes complicated Shakespearean lines as the set and costumes were both modern and timeless, with King Lear entering the first scene dressed in a suit that could have been worn at any time in the past century by the royal family.

The effects were also astonishing for their realness: I was sitting close enough to Ian McKellen for him to practically spit in my face, and yet I couldn’t see where they produced the blood (and there was a lot of it). The sheer violence of this production, akin to a Tarantino movie, made it all the more poignant because it felt so true. Particularly horrifying was the Lord Gloucester eye-gouging scene, where I thought for a moment that the actor truly had lost his eyes.

What truly sets this production apart is the cast: Ian McKellen deserves all the admiration he gets, and more. His portrayal of King Lear was intimate in its rawness, and watching him stagger on stage, muttering in his beard, was achingly reminiscent of distant relatives with dementia. This was, for me, the most memorable and relatable part of the performance: King Lear was, most of the time, not regal and powerful as he is sometimes portrayed, but just an old man gone mad, who you end up feeling nothing but pity for.

The rest of the cast was brilliant as well, with Kirsty Bushell’s Regan in particular catching my eye in her perverse sexuality. Going back to the eye-gouging scene, it was both terrifying and strangely delightful to see her laughing maniacally while dancing on stage. James Corrigan’s Edmund was also a stand-out, delivering his lines in such a modern way that I would sometimes forget that the play had been written centuries ago. Finally, having Kent played by a woman (Sinead Cusack) and Cordelia played by a black woman (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) was a welcome twist that helped the play feel relevant to today’s world.

Why you should go see it

At five pounds a pop, the day seats are truly a steal when you consider that tickets usually cost over a hundred pounds, and the play itself is a masterpiece. In fact, if you go, I might join you!

18-25 year olds can get day seats for 5 pounds to King Lear by queuing before 10am on the day of the performance. Closes November 3rd. Duke of York Theatre.

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