Sir Ian McKellen as "King Lear" at Stratford-upon-Avon

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McKellen as Lear (

Wow! I couldn't believe my luck when Bro. Peter said "Do you want to go to see "King Lear" at Stratford?". "Ummmm... let me have a little think about that..." Not!! Apparently a parent had phoned up offering 3 spare tickets. Not something to turn down. Of the Shakespeare plays that I have either read, seen on stage or seen on film (that comes to about 12), "King Lear" has always been my favourite. I had the joy of being able to see Sir Anthony Hopkins (I can hear Mark Kermode's voice as I type - tv + radio film critic) in the role at the National theatre, London during my English A-Level course (1986... <gulp>) with a wonderful supporting cast including Anna Massey, Francis Barber (Goneril in the new Stratford production), Bill Nighy, Michael Bryant, Douglas Hodge... I also saw Olivier in the role in a made-for-tv adaptation.

But my overall experience of the play at Stratford on Weds. night tops any play I've ever seen (not that I've seen that many). One can always quibble over such and such an individual role or scene, but when taken as a whole I found it a most invigorating, dramatic, at times funny and ultimately very moving production, at the centre of which was Sir Ian McKellen. He is one of those actors who can just hold an audience in the palm of their hand and take them on a journey. With him in "King Lear" that journey involves the usual decent into madness but also a gradual sense of self-discovery, of self-awareness, of a mind in conflict, wishing at the same time to willfully suppress the pain of betrayal (both real and supposed) and yet hold onto some shred of sanity. He also brings to the role a wonderful sensitivity, humour, mischievousness and deftness of touch that defies the audience not to feel great affection for him. Much more so than Hopkins did, I feel.

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He is given tremendous support by the majority of his fellow cast, but especially by William Gaunt (Gloucester), Jonathan Hyde (Kent), Ben Meyjes (Edgar/Tom), Monica Dolan (Regan) and Philip Winchester (Edmund). I love in particular those scenes of him, Edgar/Poor Tom, Kent and the Fool (and later Gloucester) out in the rain, exposed to the elements, a fraternity of outcasts, of wandering lepers or battered pilgrims who've lost everything except their ability to give comfort to each other despite their own personal distress. Each of them in a way has had to take on a role or wear a mask to survive: Lear's involuntary madness, Edgar's deliberately feigned madness, Kent's false rough, tough manservant persona and the Fool's mask of foolishness that hides an acute observational intelligence.

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Lear + Gloucester

I cried during what was a wonderfully touching final scene when Lear enters carrying his dead daughter Cordelia, though I did momentarily fear for poor Romola Garai as I thought McKellen was going to drop her!
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