Review – King Lear, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 6th October 2017

King LearThere 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.

KL Ian McKellen, Dominic Mafham, Patrick RobinsonActually, 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.

KL Sinead CusackI’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.

KL Tamara Lawrance, Jake MannLear’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.

KL Phil DanielsMaking 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.

KL Ian McKellenJonathan 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.

KL Michael Matus, Sinead CusackSir 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.

Danny Webb, Jonathan BaileyLear’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.

Dervla Kirwin, Damien MolonyDamien 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.

KL Ian McKellen, Danny WebbI 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”.

KL Kirsty Bushell, Patrick RobinsonThis 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

Review – No Man’s Land, Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd October 2016

No Man's LandI remember when No Man’s Land first hit the stage back in 1975. It was the first new Pinter to appear after I first started reading him and seeing his plays. We’d read The Caretaker at school. I’d seen The Collection and The Lover as an amateur production in 1973. I was impressed with Pinter’s gifts as a director over the years, enjoying his London productions of the Simon Gray plays Otherwise Engaged, The Rear Column, Close of Play and Quatermaine’s Terms. But it wasn’t until four years ago that I actually first saw a professional production of a Pinter play – Betrayal, at the Sheffield Crucible. There’s a lot of ground to make up.

Original No Man's LandThat’s one of the reasons I leapt at the chance to book to see No Man’s Land when it first came on sale many months ago. I always think of it in terms of Gielgud and Richardson (both of whom I was lucky to see in other productions) and it struck me that the casting of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was about as darn perfect as it could get. So, given the fact that Sir Patrick was off sick (forbidden to take to the stage by his doctor) with a throat infection, I’m surprised how well the whole audience (ourselves included) took the news that the role of Hirst would be played by Mr Andrew Jarvis. No pressure on him, then. But sometimes having an understudy in the role can really spice up the entire performance of the play. It’s not going to go precisely the same way that it normally does, with all four regular members of the cast on board. There will be changes – everyone will have to think on their feet a bit more. There’s a seat-of-pants edge to it.

ian-mckellen-and-patrick-stewartBut first: how does the play stand the test of time forty years or so since it was written? Extremely well, in my opinion. Perhaps more than most Pinter plays, it’s not obvious what’s happening. Usually, I think the best way to take Pinter is at face value. Don’t try to read “a meaning” into what you see and hear – the meaning is no more, or less, than what is acted on the stage. Hirst lives near Hampstead Heath and he appears to have met Spooner whilst out walking. Spooner has come back to his place to join him for some drinks. They’re both arts aficionados, and seem to have a lot in common. Spooner is talkative, Hirst taciturn. patrick-stewartThey both drink vast quantities of whisky. Eventually (drunk? defeated?) Hirst crawls out of the room. Briggs and Foster, two younger men, come in and take part in an elaborate conversation with Spooner, involving hinted relationships and veiled threats. As the first act curtain falls, it looks as though Foster is going to make a move towards Spooner which might be one of physical or sexual violence; or maybe medical intervention.

ian-mckellenThe more I think about the play, the more I feel that Hirst and Spooner are imprisoned in some form of institution. Spooner insists to Hirst that he is a free man, which causes Hirst to reply: “it’s a long time since we had a free man in this house.” Spooner is locked in the room all night – doctor’s orders, says Briggs. Hirst threatens to dismiss Briggs, but he won’t leave, because he doesn’t have the authority. Briggs and Foster insist that Hirst goes on his morning walk. Hirst’s animated second act recollections of old days with Spooner, Emily, Bunty, Stella, Arabella and Rupert, whilst on the surface seem real and affectionate, are clearly the product of an unbalanced brain. To what extent Spooner simply goes along with it, or is equally befuddled, is a moot point. The text defines “no man’s land” as a place “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older but which remains forever, icy and silent.” That could be a definition of Hirst’s house; it could be a definition of the workings of a failed, unwell mind. In any case, I don’t think the “take it as face value” approach works for this play. I’m sure it has a much greater hidden significance.

ian-mckellen-owen-teale-and-patrick-stewartThis riveting production is directed by Sean Mathias with a strong regard for the play’s sense of claustrophobia. On entering the auditorium you are met with a strangely disturbing, overly artificial, moving projection onto the front curtain of Hampstead Heath trees, flickering and glistening in the wind and the movement of the birds. This sets you up for a heightened expectation of uncomfortable detail, which Pinter’s words and Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set deliver in droves. The harsh light that invades the stage from who knows what outside the door pierces the calm darkness of Hirst’s room like a dagger. The tops of the trees shimmer unattainably above the stage, part aspirational, part mocking. Everything is nearly natural – but not quite.

no-mans-land-castSo what of Saturday’s matinee performance, with Andrew Jarvis in place of Patrick Stewart? We’d seen Mr Jarvis once before when he was Duncan in Sheffield’s Macbeth four years ago. He was excellent in that, but in No Man’s Land he truly shone. In those early conversations where you sense that Hirst is losing his way, he was dignified but uncertain, passionate but hollow, engaging in a fencing match with Spooner where the latter did all the work trying to find a way in and he merely had to occasionally parry riposte. When he’s fully lost, and trapped in the no man’s land of a memory of a photograph album, his emptiness is truly emotional. But when he feels like he’s in charge, he has something of the Act One Scene One Lear about him, bestowing grandiose beneficence; and he carries off that wonderful scene where it appears that he and Spooner are old friends with beautiful lightness and rhythm that was a joy to watch. As Sir Ian said at curtain call, although it was no doubt a disappointment not to see Sir Patrick, there was no need for an apology.

ian-mckellen-and-owen-tealeSir Ian, himself, gives one of his fascinatingly detailed performances where every muscle in his face moves with purpose. You always know precisely what it is that Spooner is thinking or feeling by simply watching the visual signs. He’s a wily character; happy to bludge a free drink, never letting go of his coat in case he has to scarper, always on the lookout to exercise his sense of moral or artistic superiority; reliant on his so-called friendship with the pub landlord in the same way that Blanche Dubois depends on the kindness of strangers. Sir Ian takes us on an epic journey of emotions where he tries to blend in with this apparently generous and extravagant household, in the end beseeching Hirst to let him be his secretary; the outsider desperate to be part of the in-crowd. It’s always a privilege to watch his performances; I love his attention to detail and his fantastic timing. In No Man’s Land you have the delight of seeing him take a champagne breakfast. I’ll say no more.

owen-teale-in-no-mans-landIt feels wrong to refer to Briggs and Foster as supporting roles because they’re completely vital to the plot and structure of the play – as well as dishing out the usual menace that we expect in the Pinter landscape. Owen Teale invests Briggs with all the necessary brute force just hovering at the back of the character somewhere; you always sense he’s just a gesture away from something downright evil. This makes it all the more delightful when his character starts to open up – like when he’s reminiscing, in that Pinteresque manner, of the difficulties in getting to and from Bolsover Street, the subtle implications that there may be more to his relationship with Foster than just colleagues, or when he just slips into the subservient role of breakfast and wine waiter; damian-molony-in-no-mans-landeven though the menace is still lurking just beneath the surface. Damien Molony (stunning in The Body of an American a couple of years ago) plays Foster as a trendy, cocky, self-centred man about town; someone who thinks and behaves like they’re more successful in life than they really are; the kind of character who’s recognisable in many a Pinter play. He delivers the end speech of Act One with a chilling sense of danger, and is always a tangibly disconcerting presence whenever on stage.

nomansland-castI thought this was a tremendous production that breathed superb life into the play forty years on. It was also a fantastic example of how, just because the star performer cannot go on, the show nevertheless must, and the understudy can pull off a superb performance. Yes, it’s true – this play is not for everyone; there were a few seats around us in the second act where people hadn’t returned after the interval. I guess if you don’t “get” Pinter’s vision of life, you could find it just too obscure to enjoy. Stick with it though, the second act is hugely rewarding and feels more accessible and understandable than the first act. This production is on until 17th December – and I think if you like your Pinter, you’re going to love this.

Production photographs by Johan Persson