The thing about King Lear that many productions ignore or overlook, in a modern, desperate striving for relevance or innovation, is that it is a tragic tale about fathers who are mistaken about the love of their children. This superb production, helped enormously by the intimacy of the staging at the Minerva Theatre, focuses on that aspect and, by so doing, manages to say quite a lot about the kind of dysfunctional world where Brexit and Trump are the reality.
The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
Darkness. A sudden light. A regally attired, possibly military, man stands resolutely on a red carpeted round stage. Dignity and age combine to straighten his spine. The noise of power can be heard in the background, as if this mighty man was taking a moment before resuming some public duty.
Then there is a sound, almost of drowning. Almost imperceptibly, the monarch shrinks a little. The eyes flicker, the mouth quivers slightly, the face seems to skip a beat. The mood suddenly anticipates Edmund’s words: The younger rises, when the old doth fall.
This is Jonathan Munby’s production of King Lear for Daniel Evans’ inagural season at Chichester. Despite the star appeal of Ian McKellen in the title role, and the obvious potential to sell more tickets that comes inevitably with that, this King Lear is playing in the Minerva Theatre, a much smaller space than the Festival Theatre. It is a smart decision which pays off spectacularly.
Because King Lear works best in intimate mode, as the Derek Jacobi Donmar version proved well enough in 2010. The play doesn’t require big concepts or overwhelming directorial conceits as the Glenda Jackson Old Vic production last year or the most recent RSC productions (Antony Sher 2016, Greg Hicks in 2010 and McKellen in Trevor Nunn’s 2007) all proved. Apart from Jacobi, Jackson was the best of all those Lears, even though her performance was somewhat swamped by the artistic vision that propelled the production.
Nothing swamps McKellen’s extraordinary performance here. He is remarkable, mesmerising throughout. His masterful use of his voice, and the way he makes Shakespeare’s phrases growl, bark, seduce, frighten, inspire or soothe is exemplary.
Every sentence seems entirely new, freshly imagined, alive. This is true whether he is howling over the death of Cordelia, snarling at Dervla Kirwan’s Goneril, conspiring with Phil Daniels’ Fool or gasping with recognition at Danny Webb’s blinded Gloucester. He handles the famous storm scene with unique sensitivity – showing his Lear to be crushed by the natural forces, but still ready for the fight. The measured anger in his delivery of “great stage of fools” chilled the bone, the cracks in his sound perfectly judged. He is never anything but thrilling to hear.
McKellen’s performance transcends technique, although clearly he is sustained by it. Full-bodied but savage and kind at once, he makes the old King totally understandable. It’s impressive to see the energy and strength he expends – he carries the dead Cordelia on his back, no mean feat. And the essay about dementia that his portrayal embraces is haunting and electrifying. This is one of the truly great performances, untrammelled by mannerisms, fuelled by glorious ability.
One hopes that a permanent record will be made of McKellen’s performance. This King Lear ought to be seen by everyone, everywhere. And not just because of McKellen.
This is a cast full of talent. Kirwan is sensational as a regal, finely coiffured and tightly wound Goneril. A moment when she walks desolate by sterile white cliffs sums up the private agonies of the character with elegant sincerity. Sinéad Cusack, as the gender-swapped Kent, is full of stoic passion, and although the motherly aspect she brought to the senior relationships left odd and unintended vibrations amongst the older men, she powerfully played her part.
The Gloucester trio shone. Danny Webb has never been finer than he was here as Gloucester, and his blinding with a butcher’s hook was disturbingly visceral. Damian Molony, caustic, charming and deliciously evil as Edmund, played his part with considerable relish and style. Jonathan Bailey, in the sometimes unforgiving role of Edgar, is a real revelation, making the difficulties of the Poor Tom aspects of the character a seamless part of the whole, and imbuing the betrayed and frightened Gloucester son with real, bracing heart and genial openness. Molony and Bailey really work as brothers, and the jealousy/love which binds them finds its origins in Webb’s flawed patriarch. As a result, Bailey’s speech about his father’s death was truly heart-breaking, an agony of loss.
Daniels was funny and vigorous as the Fool, a good foil for McKellen, but capable of his own momentum. Michael Matus really brought Oswald to life and Patrick Robinson made Cornwall suitably repellant.
Less satisfactory were Kirsty Bushell’s spiky Regan (a scene in underwear was especially bizarre), Dominic Mafham’s ineffectual Albany, and Tamara Lawrance’s inelegant and poorly spoken Cordelia.
Paul Wills’ smart and spare design worked wonderfully, from regal throne room to abandoned cliff-top. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting was as moody and surprising as McKellen’s phrasing, and just as potent. There was marvellous movement from Lucy Cullingford too, including some tense fighting scenes.
Munby delivered the goods here and all credit to him. A wonderful King Lear full of marvellous memories of superb performances from a gifted ensemble.