There was a positive glow of excitement last February when we found out that this year’s Chichester Festival would include a new production of King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen as the titular monarch. Not only us, but our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum all decided they wanted a slice of the regal action. In order to be within a pillicock’s whisker of a chance of getting tickets, they all joined the Chichester Friends’ scheme; and, as a result, last Friday night the six of us were all scattered round the various rows of the intimate Minerva Theatre to witness this rare sight.
Actually, it’s not that rare; we saw Sir Ian play Lear in 2008 at the New London Theatre. Call me shallow, but my main memory of the evening was holding a door open for Joanna Lumley who beamed me the most heart-melting smile imaginable in gratitude. That surpassed most other memories of the production, although it was notable, of course, for Sir Ian getting his kit off completely on the Blasted Heath; more than one critic was unable to resist the every inch a king line. I wasn’t blogging at the time, but if I had been, then rest assured gentle reader, I wouldn’t have been so pass-remarkable, true though it may have been.
I’ve seen three other Lears in my time, and they’ve all created their own special character, as you would expect. Pete Postlethwaite’s at the Young Vic was troubled but calm. Derek Jacobi’s (touring in Milton Keynes) was petulant and wheedling. Michael Pennington’s (at the Royal and Derngate in 2016) was quick to ire and was robust with dementia. Sir Ian McKellen (first time around) was simply majestic. This time, he’s still majestic, but with more of the common touch. This Lear genuinely loves the company of his retinue, and when his daughters slowly pare away the numbers they will allow to accompany him, it truly injures him to the sinews. He and the Fool are great mates and you can easily imagine them down the pub together carousing till dawn.
Lear’s kingdom is very autocratic. The boardroom where he invites his daughters to say how much they love him is overshadowed by a huge portrait of McKellen as Lear; imagine, instead, it depicting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and you’ll get the picture (literally). When the daughters are invited to praise him, they come up to a podium and speak into microphones; this is a public proclamation of love and division of the country, not just some quiet family arrangement. After Goneril has declared her undying love, Lear grabs his grand office scissors and slices through the map, handing Albany Scotland. Now I’ve nothing against the land of Loch and Trossach, but you can imagine Goneril saying to herself “Scotland? Scotland!! I was hoping for the Thames Valley at least.” Regan’s oily contribution to the debate wins her a cutting of Wales and the West Country. He really was keeping the best back for Cordelia; but she blows it (sorry if that’s a spoiler for you). Lear’s sarcastic and dismissive treatment of her whilst Burgundy and France are preparing their suit for her is tetchily painful to witness.
Making such a big show of the division debate means that the publicity will be enormous. The public nature of what he perceives as her denying him his rightful self-abasement means he can’t take her response rationally; everyone has witnessed her speech and he feels he has no choice but to cut her out of the inheritance. I almost felt sorry for Burgundy; he really did end up being there under false pretences. Fortunately, that nice King of France seems to love her for more than her riches (which is just as well.) We won’t see Cordelia again they’re both clad in rather dashing grey and white combats.
Jonathan Munby’s production is vivid and thrilling throughout. There’s no hiding place in the intimate space of the Minerva, so the harshness of life and the cruelty of the story are emphasised by the audience’s proximity to the action. The torrential rain that thunders down on to the centre of the stage, and soaks Lear, the Fool, Edgar and whoever else comes near, is icy and forceful. Seated in Row A, we didn’t get wet but, boy, the rain sure made us feel cold. The sadistic delight with which Gloucester’s eyes are put out results in their being squished underfoot by the ruthless Cornwall, whilst his perverted wife gets turned on by the violence. By the same token, those brief moments of kindness and love are very strongly conveyed; for example, I’ve never been more moved by Edgar’s sad and shocked realisation of what’s become of his father. However, Mrs Chrisparkle always expects to be moved to tears when Lear brings Cordelia’s dead body on to the stage; she wasn’t this time.
Sir Ian McKellen is magnificent in the role, as you would expect; a tyrant in his division of the nation; a lad in his dealings with his retinue, a benefactor in his care for Poor Tom, a victim of his own folly and his power-grabbing daughters. His voice rages and cossets, demands and plays; in one moment he’s in full command, the next he’s pitifully useless. Not for nothing is this a chance to see probably our greatest actor in probably the greatest role for an older man. But there’s a tremendous cast about him that means every element of this great play is expressed to its full potential.
Lear’s great supporter, Kent, is here transformed into a Countess, played by Sinead Cusack. It’s a bold move but it really works. As the Countess, Ms Cusack appears as the perfect administrative adviser, somewhere between a Chief Executive and a politician. As her alter ego Caius, Ms Cusack adopts a shapeless parka and looks for all the world like a docker has just wandered in. To be fair, the King is much more likely to spend time with the likes of Caius than he is the Countess. This is an unexpected Shakespearean cross-dressing character that you feel would be totally believable. Danny Webb is perfect as Gloucester, laddishly proud of creating the bastard Edmund because of the good sport at his making, which makes him all the more easily duped by him. You feel the tragedy of his downfall just as greatly as you experience Lear’s.
Damien Molony (whom we last saw also alongside Ian McKellen in No Man’s Land) is an excellent Edmund; not too obsequious in his manipulation of his father, nor too pantomime villain as he plays off Lear’s daughters against each other. He’s just quietly, intensely credible. Jonathan Bailey is a smart, self-effacing Edgar who becomes a very wild Poor Tom. Dervla Kirwan plays Goneril with poise and self-assurance; you get the sense of a very practical person with a detailed plan for how she can gain influence. Kirsty Bushell’s Regan is very much the opposite; girlishly excitable, with the accent on physical enjoyment much more than Goneril’s cerebral stimulation. Ms Bushell’s glee at Gloucester’s misfortune is frankly loathsome.
I also really enjoyed the performances of Dominic Mafham as a delightfully worm-turning Albany, finally bringing some honour and decency to the Lear family mess; Michael Matus as a rather grumpy, formal Oswald; Patrick Robinson as a self-indulgent and patronising Cornwall, and, above all, Phil Daniels – inspired casting for the Fool – streetwise, scruffy, self-confident, and not afraid to use his ukulele. I have to say that I felt Tamara Lawrance’s Cordelia was very slightly underplayed; in this production of quality performers in quality roles, this is probably one of those times where “less” isn’t “more”.
This is one of those productions where you can say I was there – an acting masterclass that’s riveting throughout. It sold out faster than you can say nothing will come of nothing; but you might get returns if you’re lucky. A production as fantastic as you’d hoped it might be.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan