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Professional theatre critics are currently barred from reviewing Ian McKellen as King Lear at the RSC, but as Laurence Inman has paid for his ticket, there's nowt stopping him.

Last week I went to see the RSC production of King Lear at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford. It stars Sir Ian McKellen as Lear, William Gaunt as Gloucester and Sylvester McCoy as The Fool. The director is Sir Trevor Nunn.

All the ingredients of a perfect night out, you would think.

And so, by and large, it proved to be. The Courtyard is a very pleasant place, with plenty of ‘facilities’ like shops, bars, tea-rooms, cafes and accessible and numerous bogs you don’t have to queue for.

It was a spectacularly beautiful night in which to walk down there, with a full moon reflected on the river, glimpsed through the foliage which lines the road.

The production was well-thought-out, well-paced and clear. Every member of the cast (and there are no secondary roles in Lear) put every ounce of energy and commitment into the task.

They emphasized aspects of the play which I have for a long time thought needed a more accurate interpretation.

For instance, Cordelia (played superbly by Romola Garai) was allowed to have a solid personality; she normally appears as a submissive wimp. (Mind you, they had to drop a few of her asides in the opening scene to achieve this.)

Lear was not ‘more sinned against than sinning,’ but shown to be significantly complicit in his fate.

Gloucester was stunning throughout.

Even so….and yet….but still….

I’m afraid the discussion afterwards was peppered with such phrases. It’s taken me a week to work out why.

This is always the case with a good, but dissatisfying production. You need the time it takes for the evening to become a proper memory before a rounded judgement can emerge. Well, that time has now elapsed.

First, the auditorium. The acoustics are not brilliant. I had trouble hearing everyone except McKellen and Gaunt. And also, of course, the coughers, slow sweet-unwrappers and the annoying git sitting immediately above me who kept tapping his feet and moving in his chair, making an excruciating squeak.

The set was interesting and added to the atmosphere of progressive disintegration, but it rather reflected one’s feelings about the production’s approach to the text: yes, you can see what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t quite hit the target.

The fact is that if you have a really big name in a production then the audience’s focus on him or her is exaggerated. One effect of this is that they become uncritical.

You could see this happening throughout Olivier’s career. I cede to no one in my admiration of the film of Henry V, or the unnerving sincerity of his work in The Loudest Whisper and the only performance I ever actually saw him in, Trevor Griffith’s The Party at the National in 1973, was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen on stage.

But someone should have told him not to play Hamlet at the age of forty (and the person playing his mother could easily have passed as his younger sister) or to black up for Othello and ruin the simplest lines by just, well, overdoing it.

He slowly became one of those showmen, of whose acting people say ‘I wish I could do that!’ while never understanding that about the best actors you will say ‘I could have done that,’ because they made it look so easy and natural.

The perfect example is (or was) Colin Blakely. If you ever see King Ralph keep your eye on Peter O’Toole and compare him to John Goodman.

The press are fond of calling that grinning bloke who’s shortly to become an ex-prime minister ‘a consummate actor.’ You never hear actors say that because they know that he is a transparently bad actor. You see the wheels going round. It’s all about him.

I’ve digressed a bit.

McKellen is a great actor. His Macbeth and his Iago both did that near-impossible thing: they expanded and illuminated our thoughts about the characters and the plays themselves.

Go and see this production. But try not to let this thought intrude: when an actor and director, both in the last thirds of their careers and having been lauded most of their professional lives, decide, consciously or not, that a great classic will provide an opportunity for them both to make some sort of ‘testament’ then it won’t be long before somebody notices.

And then, I’m afraid, the game is up.

(To see The Stirrer's discussion of King Lear at the RSC, click here

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