Trevor Nunn’s King Lear. A Darker Purpose Achieved

Par Charles Holdefer
Publication en ligne le 28 janvier 2010

Texte intégral

1The pain of fallen grandeur, the misery of a toothless lion : Ian McKellen’s interpretation in the lead of King Lear is a star turn that still manages to be subtle and to tease out intriguing possibilities of meaning, in a stark environment where the very idea of meaning is challenged. It is a bruising performance, a must-see marking the end of an RSC world tour, and a milestone in a distinguished actor’s career. After stops in America, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, Lear has come home.

2Praise of this order always carries the risk of hype. Indeed, hype is a 21st century appurtenance of this long-awaited performance, in the wake of McKellen’s recent involvement in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (for many fans, he will forever be Gandalf), the media chatter about on stage nudity and news reports of McKellen’s most recent stand on gay rights in Singapore. This production did not exactly sneak into town.

3But just as hype does not make right, nor does it necessarily mean wrong. Praise of this production is earned. This Lear delivers the goods, in three and a half well-honed hours.

4Trevor Nunn’s direction is in many respects straightforward. His third Lear in 30 years, this latest version appears to be the mature reflection of someone wary of the Big Statement. It rarely attempts to estrange, and the solid supporting cast offers no fundamental rethinking of the roles. But this does not mean, either, that the production avoids risks.

5On the contrary, Nunn makes several bold and debatable choices, evincing a modern awareness of the text as a series of problems to be solved, or, if not solved, then at least made new. For instance, Lear’s oncoming dotage is announced at the beginning when he relies on note cards to help him through his speech about dividing the kingdom. This is actually Lear’s second appearance on stage, because instead of respecting the text and beginning with Kent and Gloucester’s dialogue, the play starts with blaring organ music and a grand dumb show of Lear, his court and attendants. The court appears in priestly black ; Lear wears glittering popish vestments. This air of absolute command stands in great contrast with the shaky old man who appears a short time later. The quasi-religious pomp also seems rather at odds with the play’s paganism. Even taking into account occasional pseudo-Christian allusions in the text, opening Lear in this manner could seem problematic.

6But the choice makes sense, because a particular theology is less an issue here than a general authority. With this opening, Lear’s “natural” pre-eminence is firmly established. A 21st century audience, accustomed to tabloid fare of Prince Harry snorting vodka and licking his mate’s nipple, might be forgetful of the Chain of Being. Whatever you think about monarchy, Nunn seems to say, whether you are jaded or cozy, a cynic or a sentimentalist, put aside today’s assumptions. Tonight, the stakes will be higher.

7Such interpolations run the risk of special pleading, even didacticism. But Nunn wisely keeps it snappy : the pomp parade lasts only about fifteen seconds. Moreover, on this particular November evening, the audience was slow to settle down and seemed, frankly, in need of more cues. During Gloucester’s opening lines, the audience was friendly in the worst way, hanging on to every pun, tittering when it might smile, laughing when it might titter. It was like the reaction of fond parents at a school theatrical, but needier, as often happens when Shakespeare is consumed as both high culture and hyped culture. (Yes, we’re here, too, and we belong to the club !) Fortunately, the merits of the production swiftly asserted their power, and the audience directed less attention to itself.

8McKellen as Lear is a dominating stage presence, but William Gaunt as Gloucester also exerts authority, of a quieter sort, which grows more compelling the more abject he becomes. Goneril and Regan, as played by Frances Barber and Monica Dolan, respectively, are excellent, too. In the early stages of the play, before events become too monstrous, they manage to evoke sympathy as daughters who are put-upon by a temperamental parent. Jonathan Hyde’s gruff portrayal of the Earl of Kent achieves added complexity when, at the end of the play, he stalks off the stage with a firearm and the implied intention of killing himself.

9This last example is a modern reading by Nunn of the quality of Kent’s loyalty. What at first seemed honourable ends up looking fanatical. How far is one willing to go, for the sake of an allegiance ? In this performance, the consolations of closure will be few.

10Nunn’s boldest choice, however, is his answer to the problem of what happens to the Fool. In this production, the Fool gets hung in plain sight. This development is sudden, disturbing, and arguably sensational. The set design, a minimalist creation by Christopher Oram which manages to appear both craggy and classical, contributes to the effect. When the Fool is hung, the rafters above his head break open, as if the heavens themselves had been rent asunder. In an early review from Stratford before the company went on tour, Germaine Greer objected to this choice, arguing that here “Shakespeare's play descended into Grand Guignol.”1

11But one could counter that Nunn’s staging offers more than a gratuitous frisson. For instance, its timing is very astute. The hanging occurs immediately before the interval, and Fool is left hanging on stage even after the lights go up. This leaves the audience with a most awkward problem of etiquette : is it socially acceptable to step out for a pint when someone is hanging in front of you ? Eventually Edmund’s underlings return to retrieve the body, but not before the audience has been chastened and, in effect, obliged to carry this sobering image with it during the break.

12More problematic than the idea of executing the Fool on stage–in terms of production values–is the accompanying music. As his executioners prepare the rope and the Fool races through his final lines (his “prophecy” about confusion in Albion, postponed from 3.2 to 3.6), the volume of the music rises and rises. Toward the end, the Fool’s words are completely inaudible. This is a pity, because it would have been better to trust the text.

13This is not the only time, either, that the pre-recorded music interferes. In other respects, this production is unencumbered by gimmicks. There is an appealing simplicity to the Ruritanian costumes, the Cossack dance by Lear’s knights, the stripped-down set, the minimalist rain during the storm scene. All these work well. Occasional early modern props, notably firearms, Edgar’s eyeglasses and a wonderful period wheelchair for Lear in Act IV, succeed not by appearing clever but by being integrated into the drama. Although the first fight scene, between Kent and Oswald, is rather mannered, the climatic sword duel between Edmund and Edgar is convincingly staged. But when Goneril and Regan conspire, a background accompaniment of portentous organ music seems heavy-handed, like a dash of soap opera. Perhaps this element is intentionally melodramatic but, if that is the case, then it feels more modish than modern, and, most crucially, distracting.

14To a lesser degree, the same might be said of the Fool’s playing the spoons as he delivers his barbed lines. Sylvester McCoy has injected music hall into the role, downplaying the pathos. When he drops his pants, it is pure Benny Hill. (Whether this works or not depends on how one feels about Benny Hill.) In light of the production as a whole, it is interesting to compare this moment of farcical display of the Fool’s underwear to a later moment–much remarked upon in the media–of Lear’s nudity, when McKellen briefly exposes himself, to a much different effect. Is this a convincing staging of Lear’s breakdown, of his doddering indignity ? Or is it an ironic comment of sorts, which allows McKellen to make fun of his star turn ? (You came to see me...OK, I’ll drop my pants.) Or is it actually the contrary : is McKellen revelling in the attention ? It is impossible to divine his motives, but one can assert, without prudery, that this choice, too, distracts from the drama.

15Although Edgar (Ben Mey Jes) is sometimes hard to understand, Cordelia (Romola Garai) is unexceptional, and Edmund (Philip Winchester) somehow does not muster the delicious nastiness of Lear’s bad daughters, together they successfully convey the terrible turns of the wheel of fortune. Edgar and Gloucester’s trek to the sea is powerful, a highlight of the evening, and left this viewer fighting a modern and fantastical reflex to reach for a remote control somewhere near the theatre seat, in order to point it at the stage, and command a replay. (Yes, see that part again.)The acting is focused and intense, and moves along swiftly. Perhaps too swiftly, even. Critically, in this staging, Edgar and Gloucester enter from the audience, with their backs to onlookers ; Gloucester’s fall is conspicuously understated, as if Nunn mistrusted what Jan Kott referred to as the circus aspect of this pantomime.2

16Briefly, in Act IV, light shines through the set’s broken rafters. Then, to great effect, the light goes away. McKellen’s handling of Lear and Cordelia’s reunion in the French camp is masterful, both tortured and tender, and marks a climax. The later “Howl” is already forming in the throat. This production is about more than one actor ; its success is, indeed, the sum of its parts. But it is for scenes like this one, which dramatize so acutely the play’s peculiarly awful conjuncture of the arbitrary and the inevitable, the collision of hope and experience, that a 21st century audience will respond to King Lear.


1  Germaine Greer, The Guardian, May 7, 2007 (November 26, 2007) <,,2074119,00.html>

2  Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Boleslaw Taborski, trad., London, Methuen and Co., 1964, p. 119.

Pour citer ce document

Par Charles Holdefer, «Trevor Nunn’s King Lear. A Darker Purpose Achieved», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], V. Mises en scène récentes, N°1 - 2007, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 03/12/2019, URL :

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Charles Holdefer is a Maître de Conférences at the University of Poitiers. His most recent work is a novel, The Contractor(2007). Hewas co-editor with Andrew McKeown of Philip Larkin and the Poetics of Resistance(2006) and his fiction and criticism have appeared in The New England Review, The North American Review, and World Literature Today.Review of King Lear The Royal Shakespeare CompanyTrevor Nunn, DirectorNew London Theatre, Drury Lane WC224 November 2007