I sat on the very edge of my seat. Hands clenched on my knees, feet placed as firmly as I could get them on the floor. I could see the gleam of something unhinged in Sir Ian McKellen’s eye, a light sheen over his iris. He danced around the small circular stage in nothing but a white wife beater and khaki pants, a singular suspender thrown loosely over his shoulder. A green leaf was fastened to the side of his forehead. A symbolic replacement for his gleaming crown worn at the beginning of the production. An indication of how far he had fallen from grace.
I have never read “King Lear,” nor did I even have a semblance of an idea of what was coming when I went to see the National Theatre Live Recording of “King Lear” at the Regina A. Quick Center on Oct. 17. Though with a quick internet search I found that “King Lear” depicts its titular character, the King of England, in a slow descent of dementia and madness, taking everyone around down with him. But even with this limited amount of knowledge, I felt closer to the text than I ever had before, despite spending much of my high school career breaking down each line of a slightly tattered and worn, but never read, copy of Shakespeare into the smallest of ideas. I had yet to feel this connection, like a character standing on stage, completely pulled into the story.
Ian McKellen would be delighted to hear this. Before the start of the performance, the audience was shown a video regarding the production and the ideas behind the performance. McKellen specifically wanted the setting to be intimate, allowing the audience to be part of the act, metaphorically speaking. The production was placed in the smallest theatre available, and they built the set with a plan to remove seats if necessary in place. He wanted them to see the tiny button on his top shirt when he mumbled his last line and to be able to make eye contact with every audience member seated in the theatre. I have to say that they were successful.
I audibly gasped during the opening scene, when Lear disinherited his favorite daughter, Cordelia, played by Tamara Lawrance, as she refused to join her sisters in showering him in false compliments in an effort to gain his favor.
I threw a hand over my eyes, peeking through a small crack between my index and middle fingers as Lear’s middle daughter, Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, (played by Kirsty Bushell and Dominic Mafham) removed the eyes of one of the King’s advisers, the Earl of Gloucester, played by Danny Webb, with a meat hook. The woman next to me kept whispering, “Oh my God,” under her breath as the blood slowly spread across the stage, covering the couple, who cackled, continuing their reign of terror.
And I wiped a tear away at the final scene when Lear gasped, breaths shortening, asking Edgar (Damien Molony), the son of the Earl of Gloucester, “‘Pray you, undo this button,” as he took his last breath. His daughters’ dead bodies lying around him, a physical representation of the destruction that he had set in motion.
It didn’t matter, though. We knew it was he who was to blame. Sure, you could toss that around to all of the people around him for allowing it to get this bad, for allowing his position of King to overwhelm any semblance of reality or morality, but none of that would matter now. All the other audience members and I could think of doing at that moment was getting to our feet and filling the room with applause.