Jonathan Munby's Chichester production from last year was the best I've seen yet - in fact I chose it as my overall favourite show of 2017. With Ian McKellen in the titular role it was always going to make commercial sense to transfer it to London, and I wasn't going to miss the chance to see it again even if I knew the changes that come with a transfer meant it couldn't quite match up to the original experience. For one thing, the Duke of York's might be a small theatre by West End standards but it's a world away from the intimacy of the Minerva, where even sitting near the back of the theatre only actually translated to the fifth row or thereabouts, and the cast made lots of entrances and exits by an aisle right next to me.
The smaller theatre's aisle exits have been recreated here by a raised walkway going through the Stalls, and much has been made in the press about how much it improves the intimacy on that level. Funnily enough, less has been made of what it does to the Circles: Not being able to see the walkway itself doesn't really impact because it really is just used to get from A to B, but the stage has also been brought forward a bit, and though the Royal Circle is usually decent at this theatre and probably still is, the Upper's terrible sightlines can only get worse.
Knowing what the theatre's like in advance I'd got in quick and got front row of the Upper so the view wasn't bad enough to spoil the experience, but any other row in that particular circle is a radio play at the best of times. The other reason this was never going to be quite the same was the delay in transferring meant some of the cast would inevitably be unavailable, and one of the best things for me was that this was never a one-man show: McKellen is as good as you'd hope but King Lear has many great characters and they were all cast with some of my favourite actors, all really knocking it out of the park. About half of the principals have been lost, but alongside McKellen Danny Webb returns as Gloucester along with Kirsty Bushell's Regan, Sinéad Cusack's Kent, and Michael Matus' Oswald.
The loss of both Damien Molony and Jonny Bailey was a blow, but the new cast members are all generally good: That pair are replaced by James Corrigan as Edmund and Luke Thompson as Edgar, with Anita Joy Uwajeh as Cordelia, Claire Price as Goneril and Lloyd Hutchinson as the Fool. Perhaps predictably, I didn't find Corrigan as charismatic a bad guy as Molony, but Thompson steps well into Bailey's lack of shoes, and when in full Poor Tom mode his boxers seem even more tattered, and so low-slung the fact that they don't just slide right off him is a mystery of physics. A horribly frustrating mystery of physics.
Otherwise my review from last year basically stands, Munby's production finding even more contemporary relevance in its portrayal of a ruling class full of pomp and self assurance, throwing its rules and structures out of the window for no good reason with chaos ensuing. A few nice little details I hadn't noticed last time included the way jackets define the characters' relationships - Goneril putting a military jacket on Edmund to flatter him, and most notably Lear draping his jacket over Poor Tom, Kent giving him her own as a replacement, and Lear taking that straight off and giving it to Poor Tom too. There's also a lovely little thread with a single tiny flower, which Lear finds in the sheets when he wakes up in the field hospital as a reminder of his mad scene, like something out of what he thought was a dream; he later uses it as the feather to check if Cordelia's breathing, before finally tossing it onto the bodies of his other two daughters as their sole memorial. The Duke of York's can never match up to the Minerva, and the fact that McKellen's name will put bums on seats means anyone who can't pay an extortionate price is penalised in terms of seeing much of the action, but the production itself remains as towering as the central performance.
King Lear by William Shakespeare is booking until the 3rd of November at the Duke of York's Theatre.
Running time: 3 hours 30 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.