A masterful performance from Ian McKellen anchors the RSC's strong production of Shakespeare's tragedy.
As the play opens, McKellen's Lear is already in obvious physical decline. He is frequently short of breath and seems to suffer from heart trouble. His main worry, however, is that he will go mad. When pushed to his limits by his ungrateful daughters Goneril (Frances Barber) and Regan (Monica Dolan), he finally does. Yet, the unhinging of his mind also gives this Lear a renewed physical robustness. It's when he comes back to sanity as he reconciles with banished daughter Cordelia (Romola Garai) that his infirmity once again takes hold.
McKellen gives us a highly sympathetic Lear. Even his rages against his various daughters come across as thoughtlessly hot-tempered rather than calculatedly cruel. His doubts and self-recriminations show through his imperious outward façade until they overtake it completely and render him humble.
Nunn has done an excellent job of making the story arcs of all the major characters clear, as well as finding the humor in the text (particularly in the first act). He's also paced the action well, making the three-hour-and-thirty-five minute length of the production feel as if it were only half as long.
There are many subtle touches included in the staging that help keep the play fresh, such as Cordelia's obvious preference for the Duke of Burgandy (Peter Hinton) as her suitor, so that his rejection is almost as much of a blow as her disinheritance. The momentary shock of recognition that crosses the face of the disguised Edgar (Ben Meyjes) upon meeting Lear is also nicely enacted, as are the restrained looks of disapproval that sometimes appear on the servants and foot soldiers when their masters make ill advised decisions.
A strong acting ensemble helps make all of this work. William Gaunt is flawless as the Earl of Gloucester, and the scene in which the blinded lord encounters the mad Lear in Dover is absolutely heart wrenching. Barber's Goneril is appropriately steel-willed yet not without vulnerability. Meyjes handles the feigned madness of "Poor Tom" as smoothly as Edgar's filial concern for his blinded father. His final speech, which ends the play, strikes all the right notes of sadness and regret.
Fine performances are also given by nearly the entire cast, including Sylvester McCoy's Fool, Julian Harries' Duke of Albany, Jonathan Hyde's Kent, and in a fairly minor role, John Heffernan's Oswald. On the downside, Philip Winchester pushes too hard as Edmond, failing to find either the charm or the humor in his many speeches, particularly his direct addresses to the audience.
Neil Austin's lighting and Fergus O'Hare's sound design are wonderfully evocative, particularly in a chilling scene in which the blind Gloucester is left alone, listening to the sounds of the nearby battle. Christopher Oram's set, with its unusual perspective, starts out draped in elegant crimson which is slowly stripped away to eventually reveal a decrepit and ruined building, nicely mirroring Lear's own decline within the play.