Saturday 30 September 2017

Theatre review: King Lear (Minerva, Chichester)

Then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion. Parklife!

Ten years ago I'd only ever seen one King Lear, because my first production had stuck with me so much I was afraid of seeing one I liked less and spoiling the memory. I'm now well into double figures, and what made me first break my own ban was the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Ian McKellen, then pushing seventy, play the title role. Well I guess there's no such thing as once-in-a-lifetime, as McKellen was rumoured never to have been quite happy with that production and especially the cavernous venues it played. Now, pushing eighty but still at the top of his game, he gets another go in Chichester's intimate Minerva theatre. So there's something of the vanity project to making this such an exclusive event*, and it's almost a surprise - a great one - that Jonathan Munby's production is among the best I've seen, with a luxury cast including two Big Favourites Round These Parts as the warring Eds.

The ambiguous wording of the initial announcement made me wonder if McKellen was actually going to defy expectations and turn out to be playing Gloucester but no, he returns to Lear, the king who divides his kingdom between his two most flattering daughters, cutting off Cordelia (Tamara Lawrance) for her bluntly honest words. His attempt to hold onto his power in name only fails once Goneril (Dervla Kirwan) and Regan (Kirsty Bushell) show their true colours, and Lear is thrown out to face the elements.

Munby's production is not just modern-dress but very specifically so, setting the action among the present-day English aristocracy. Kirwan's hairdo channels a young Princess Margaret, Lear's retinue of knights are a Bullingdon Club in Barbour jackets, and in the beautifully detailed opening scene the men's chests heave under a ridiculous amount of medals. The suspicion is that they've awarded these to themselves rather than earning them through any particular achievements; confirmed when the King's announcement takes them by surprise and the whole court clearly lapses into a panic. Cordelia's speech is sometimes played as a joke that backfires, here all three of the daughters' proclamations of love have the feel of them not really believing the situation is for real.

McKellen unambiguously plays Lear as suffering from dementia, his moods and mental capacity varying wildly from scene to scene: Even in his calmer, reflective moments, as he goes over recent events it doesn't seem like he really understands what he's done. There tends to be a choice to be made on what kind of King Lear was before the play's action starts, kindly or a feared tyrant. Here it almost doesn't matter - he was probably always a bit aloof from his own power, and it's really the change in the status quo that throws the country into confusion. As power comes up for grabs, the baser instincts of people who've never really had to do anything for their elevated position come to the fore.

Sinéad Cusack's Kent, always the play's voice of reason and decency, is here a particularly rare example of common sense and prescience. Danny Webb's Gloucester is a decent man too but he also seems unused to dealing with any situation too taxing, leaving him an easy target for Damien Molony's Edmund, a man two princesses are willing to fight to the death over for some reason.
But in this chaos even he's not really in control of his actions. Here Edmund becomes an Iago figure, apparently the evil mastermind but in reality a man with one idea on how to kick off his plan and then winging it from there on.

In fact one of the overwhelming impressions the production leaves is of madness, not just in Lear but in everyone. In a blinding of Gloucester scene that pays overt homage to Tarantino, a radio is turned on to provide upbeat musical accompaniment while Bushell's wild-eyed Regan dances in undisguised glee.

Jonathan Bailey plays Edgar as for the most part solid and single-minded but when he fakes madness as Poor Tom the exposure to reality outside of his usual bubble seems to make something crack for real; the text's references to him self-harming aren't often played out that explicitly but they certainly are here.

This exposure to real life is a recurring theme and one that makes Munby's production feel like such a harsh critique of the ruling classes. Lear's "poor naked wretches" speech sees the homeless crowd around him as he properly registers their existence for the first time in his life. Meanwhile the people who've been awarding each other medals are so ill-equipped to handle a genuine crisis that the first sign of trouble sees the country break out into civil war. The reality beneath the pomp is simply symbolised by the raised circle at the centre of Paul Wills' set, a red carpet ruined by the gallons of water rained on it in the storm scene (front-of-house even had to ask the audience to wait before leaving at the interval so they could mop up the overspill,) and eventually removed to reveal bare chalk stone for the second half.

There's a lot of nice little touches that make the production constantly engrossing even to someone who's seen the play many times: Like the suggestion that Phil Daniels' Fool (a cross between George Formby and Eric Morecambe) is murdered by Edmund (you know I always like it when they try to make something of his disappearance.) In the opening scene, Lear dismissively throws away a flag of Burgundy when its duke rejects Cordelia. When he goes out into an epic storm, he protects himself by tying a handkerchief on his head like a seaside postcard cartoon. Poor Tom's hiding place is an abattoir, animal heads standing in for the daughters in the mock-trial. It then serves as the scene of Gloucester's blinding, the meathooks coming in for predictably grisly use.

And at the centre of course is McKellen's Lear, anchoring but not dominating the production. His performance sets the tone but true to the blurb calling him part of an ensemble cast this is a very rounded show. Full of ideas and never slacking on energy, it's one of the truly memorable Lears.

King Lear by William Shakespeare is booking until the 28th of October at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester.

Running time: 3 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

*a recording has been announced so more than just a select few can get to see it, but there's no further details yet on when and in what form it's likely to surface.


  1. Think your review is spot on

  2. Hi Nick,

    I very much enjoyed reading your review.

    You might already be aware, but this production is now playing at London's Duke of York's Theatre, as per this up-to-date page:

    Would it be of interest to you to update this information on your site by adding this link to your review?

    Thank you for your time.