(All photos credited to: Manuel Harlan)
Ten years ago, I hadn’t yet become the theatre addict I am today and so, as a result, I missed out on seeing Sir Ian McKellen’s King Lear at the RSC, having to make do with watching it on DVD. Undoubtably a theatre legend and one of the actors I now never fail to see on stage, there was no way I was missing out a second time and last night saw me back in Chichester to see McKellen’s return to this iconic Shakespearean role. Seating only 283 people and running for just over a month, I certainly felt lucky to have a ticket.
It’s the second time I’ve seen him perform in the intimate space of the Minerva Theatre (the first being 2011’s The Syndicate) and it’s clear that he thrives on the added power that comes from being so close to the audience and the play itself also benefits from the intimacy of the venue; drawing you in and holding your attention, despite the lengthy running time (just over 3 hours, plus an interval in this case).
However, Jonathan Munby’s production is much more than its leading actor, boasting an incredibly talented ensemble cast. Sinead Cusack is a highlight as the Countess of Kent, whose loyalty and love of her King causes her to follow him in disguise, despite his cruel treatment of her, after so many years of service, in the opening scene (so brilliantly staged here, with Lear playfully taking great delight in cutting up the map of the UK with a pair of scissors – Scotland to Goneril, Northern Ireland & Wales to Regan, and England, the last third, which is then ripped in two, if you were wondering).
The strength of the female roles in King Lear is always one of my favourite aspects of the play and this production did not disappoint. Dervla Kirwan plays Goneril with a poise and maturity the comes from being the eldest sibling, exasperated by her father’s behaviour and slowly driven further and further down a path that doesn’t seem natural to her. Interestingly, in this production I never truly despised Goneril and by the end, I still did not believe her capable of the murder of her sister. She just did not seem dark enough for such actions in Kirwan’s hands.
Kirsty Bushell’s Regan on the other hand, thrives on the darkness that descends; dancing around to music during the torture of the Earl of Gloucester, clearly turned on by the whole twisted experience. Bushell is excellent throughout this production, using her sexuality to manipulate and control those around her, before being foiled by her sister’s jealousy of her seduction of Edmund.
I always have the most sympathy for the Earl of Gloucester (how could you not?!) and this production was no different with Danny Webb delivering a strong, moving performance, particularly in his scenes with Jonathan Bailey as Edgar/Tom. Bailey is fantastic as the loyal, loving son, wronged by his father and brother, in the same way as Cordelia is wronged by Lear and her sisters (and Bailey’s Edgar seems to care a great deal about her, based on Bailey’s reactions to her casting off and later death). He doesn’t go too far with the pretence of madness either; it’s always just a means to an end and his counterpoint, Edmund, is also wonderfully portrayed by Damien Molony. I’ve seen more evil portrayals; more devious ones too, but Molony comes across as extremely believable throughout the play.
The Minerva may be a small space, but Paul Will’s set is never lacking; creating multiple locations with ease and enhancing the power of key moments in the story (especially when combined with Ben and Max Ringham’s music and sound). I particularly loved how the red carpeted dias began to resemble a pool of blood, expanding outwards from beneath McKellen’s feet, as the rain from the storm lashed down on him. This Lear may keep his clothes on (unlike his 2007 performance), but the scene is no less powerful.
Some aspects of the production didn’t quite work for me. After a promising first scene, Phil Daniels’ Fool seems to fade away in to the background and is forgotten much too quickly when compared to others that I’ve seen. Also, despite strong performances from both McKellen and Tamara Lawrance individually, the love between father and daughter never really shone through, resulting in Cordelia’s death and Lear’s grief lacking depth for me. Having said that, King Lear never draws from me the same emotional response as say, a powerful production of Hamlet, which has been known to bring me to tears. Perhaps it’s the fact I never really feel sorry for Lear, feeling he brings his miseries on himself, or perhaps some plays resonate more with some audience members than others.
However, McKellen’s portrayal throughout the production of a man clearly starting to feel his age, resulted in a much more believable ending. All the moments of him trying to catch his breath, as if on the verge of a heart attack and the added wheezes, meant that his sudden death during the play’s final moments seemed inevitable, rather than out of the blue.
King Lear will never be my favourite Shakespearean tragedy. However, this production is one of the strongest I’ve seen. It was engaging, engrossing and a thoroughly enjoyable theatre experience. Making your way to Chichester to try for a returned ticket is absolutely worth the effort.
King Lear continues its run at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 28th October 2017. Running time: 3 hours (or just over), plus a 20 minute interval. Although sold out, keep an eye on the website for returns or head to the theatre on the day to join the returns queue. For more information, visit the website.