DVD Review: RSC’s King Lear

“Who is it that can tell me who I am”

Transferring stage productions onto film is something fraught with difficulties as the magic of live performance never really survives the change of medium, so something else, something slightly different has to be striven for. Trevor Nunn’s King Lear for the RSC – originated in Stratford in 2007 then toured the world before a West End season in rep with The Seagull – which stars Ian McKellen in the title role is not a filmed performance on stage, but nor is it a reconceived enhanced film version. Instead, it was filmed rather simply at Pinewood Studios, at the end of the tour, so it has the feel of a piece of theatre rather than of film, with the added bonus of being able to see the acting up close.

And what a bonus it is. McKellen is simply outstanding here. Jacobi’s Lear for the Donmar was my first ever and I couldn’t imagine it ever being bettered, Greg Hicks’ recent RSC one was just different, but this is such an incredibly visceral performance, full of anger and rage and bewilderment that is highly affecting even on screen – what it must have been like live I can’t imagine, but the camera captures every single nervy tic and nuanced touch that must have been missed in some of the larger theatres.

And facing up against him is Frances Barber as Goneril in what must be one of the performances of her lifetime. She is just astounding, all kinds of manipulative, Machiavellian evil as she plots her way through the play, but almost justifiably so as the fierce tragedy carved on her face as her father curses her indicates the troubled history between father and daughter. This is the type of performance that makes you wish the sisters were featured much more in the play. Monica Dolan’s Regan is also tremendously strong, a more nervous, unhinged energy that plays out maliciously as she caresses the text languorously and Romola Garai’s Cordelia is beautifully spoken and extremely moving.

It really is a superb company throughout though, which comes across at nearly every moment of the play. William Gaunt’s Gloucester is heart-breakingly good, Sylvester McCoy’s Fool unexpectedly captures the heart, Jonathan Hyde’s Kent is strong, Ben Meyjes’ Edgar is affecting especially as Poor Tom and Philip Winchester makes the most of every opportunity to glower seductively into the camera as the evil Edmund. And tucked away in the lower ranks is John Heffernan as Oswald, a part I hadn’t really registered before, but one lent a neatly subversive vein as a man thoroughly under Goneril’s spell, and quite frankly who wouldn’t be.

For once, this is a theatrical DVD that I can easily imagine watching again and again. Often, the novelty value of seeing a performance on disc has disappeared by the time it ends, but that was resolutely not the case here due to the incandescent quality of the acting that makes it an indispensable version of this play, whether you saw it on stage or not.

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