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 – King Lear, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th April 2016

King LearTime to add another King Lear to the collection. For this Made in Northampton production, which will tour to nine more theatres between now and July, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lady Lichfield, paying us a visit in a never-ending quest for culture and alcohol. She’d never seen King Lear on stage before, poor love. In previous years we’ve seen stage productions with McKellen (majestic), Postlethwaite (troubled) and Jacobi (petulant), all brilliant in their own way. And Mrs C in particular can’t forget the TV adaptation with Olivier as Lear, which had her blubbing uncontrollably when Cordelia died. I think she had hoped for the earlier adaptation where Cordelia marries Edgar and they all live happily ever after.

Michael PenningtonTo add to that pantheon of greats, we can now include Michael Pennington, whom I must confess I had never seen before. His is a fantastic Lear, extremely believable as both the self-centred and quick to ire king, and as the devastated, broken man on the blasted heath. Delightful to watch and listen to throughout, with his superbly pitched diction, his gently understated quirky visual expressions, and his gradual decline into madness. He answers the perennial question of Is Lear Really Mad with an utterly honest, wide-eyed stare of dementia that certainly convinced me. Every inch a great performance.

Who loves me bestSome Shakespeare productions can be amazingly inventive; some grow their strength from their essential traditionalism. You don’t get much in the way of traditional Shakespeare nowadays – it’s almost seen as a confession of unoriginality if you don’t place it in an anachronistic time-setting or have all the cast members the same sex. Max Webster’s production is pretty much in the classically traditional line; there is a nod to the 1920s/30s in the costumes, and Regan’s child sports a rather smart perambulator, but apart from that it is the timeless story of the powerful but vain old man who gives all to his daughters and gets less than nothing in return. It’s a good, solid production that tells its story with great clarity, pared back so that no gimmicks get in the way, although with a couple of surprising twists in a few of the scenes to keep you on your toes. However, I must say that I thought the use of music, when I noticed it, was rather heavy-handed; there’s a very Hollywood-style orchestral accompaniment to the big fight between Edgar and Edmund which completely destroyed its sense of tension. In any event, the fight itself was choreographed with a remarkable lack of realism; I briefly thought we’d been transported to a scene between Aladdin and Abanazar.

Joshua Elliott and Michael PenningtonHowever, what you come away with is a satisfactorily rewarding production, with some very fine performances, and interesting, thought-provoking interpretations of some of the roles. For me, apart from Mr Pennington, the best performance of the night was from Joshua Elliott as the Fool. Primarily, he achieved the nigh-on impossibility of making the Fool funny. He made you laugh, yet still delivered his blistering observations on Lear that hit the spot with all the precision of a Tomahawk missile; frequently all in the same sentence. Rarely have I heard the lines such as all thy other titles thou hast given away told with such simple honesty. And, with some cunning direction, the “joint-stool” line worked perfectly.

Scott KarimThat fine actor Pip Donaghy makes a perfect Gloucester, warmly trusting Edmund, heartily supporting the King, and allowing himself to be duped because of his own open nature. Gloucester features in two of the most challenging moments of the play, and I find myself looking forward to them just to see how they’ll deal with them. The first is where Cornwall blinds him – challenging due to its goriness (and this production doesn’t disappoint) – and the second is where he attempts to throw himself off a cliff that isn’t there; a truly pathetic moment (in the correct sense of the word). Again, that scene was beautifully portrayed, also thanks to the sincere and heartfelt portrayal of Edgar by Gavin Fowler.

Adrian IrvineCatherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan appear as sisters in unctuous sycophancy as they outdo each other in their hideous praise for their father, which of course all turns to dust once they have achieved power. They both absolutely look the part of butter-wouldn’t-melt, which adds to the shock of their true nature, with Miss Scott in particular resembling the evil twin of Lady Edith from Downton Abbey. Tom McGovern’s Kent is the mildest and, dare I say it, blandest of courtiers, but absolutely comes to life when pretending to be the sparky little Caius, horrendously chipper in his support for Lear. Among the more minor characters, I thought Daniel O’Keefe was excellent as the serviceable villain Oswald, hiding tight-lipped behind his status as Goneril’s steward, but physically cowardly when real life intercedes. There is a gasp moment when you really think Regan is going to seek to reward Oswald for information in a manner not entirely becoming a lady; but wet fish that he is, he doesn’t go there. Very nicely done.

Catherine BaileyScott Karim gives us a very stylish portrayal of Edmund. I normally think of Edmund as full of bluster and barely disguised anger. However, this Edmund is much more introverted; quiet, sly, taking the audience into his confidence with subtle glee. He is a Uriah Heep of an Edmund, creating slippery plans for his own personal wealth and success, and with no thought to the consequence to his high-living brother or generous father. At first I was unsure of this portrayal, but I quickly saw how extremely well it works.

Tom McGovernI am, however, less certain of the interpretation of Cordelia, by Beth Cooke. I always associate the character with purity – being the youngest, unmarried, daughter – and honesty, as she refuses to lie to her father about how much she loves him. This portrayal certainly reflects Cordelia’s honesty, as she adamantly refuses to back down to Lear’s hectoring behaviour. But purity? When, disinherited, she meets her two suitors, Burgundy and France, she’s all over Burgundy like a rash. That’s not the classic Cordelia I remember. Also, she opens the play by coming on stage and firing her shotgun at us. This appears to be a Cordelia with attitude. However, her mannered speech delivery remains fairly constant throughout the play – speaking with a slow, almost ponderous rhythm that doesn’t allow for much variety of tone or expression. She may have attitude, but she also seems to be resigned to a life of misery from the very start. I must confess, it didn’t quite work for me.

But the evening definitely belongs to Mr Pennington, who brings an accessibility and modernity to the role that makes you realise that any of your elderly relatives could easily become a Lear if the wind was in the wrong direction. A very enjoyable and rewarding evening.

P.S. Mrs C didn’t cry.

Review – King Lear, Donmar Warehouse Tour, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th March 2011

King LearWe’ve seen at least three Lears over the past few years. We were very lucky to get good seats for Ian McKellen’s Lear in London a few years ago, and more recently we were slightly less lucky to see the late Pete Postlethwaite’s Lear at the Young Vic. Postlethwaite was excellent but I had lots of problems with the production itself. On the other hand McKellen’s Lear was as majestic as you could imagine.

Derek Jacobi So it was with great expectations that we witnessed Derek Jacobi’s interpretation of Lear. And I must say it’s a very different, but completely valid and credible portrayal of the misguided king. Whereas Lear is often a towering, bullying, bossy kind of guy, Jacobi’s pre-heath Lear is spoilt, petulant and wheedling, insisting on a peck on the cheek from Goneril before she starts buttering him up, his voice going very high tenor when he wants to get his way – you can imagine his bedroom having a royal cot with lots of toys on the floor. His descent into madness isn’t as gradual as some Lears – to me he seemed pretty on top of his wits until his encounter with Poor Tom, which seemed to flip him over the edge. When he referred to Tom as a philosopher I felt the madness kick in. Technically, as you would expect from an actor of his stature, it’s a beautiful performance. Every word is clear; no line is wasted; his eyes and his manner convey precise meaning when the Shakespearian language gets a little dense.

Gina McKeeThere are lots of other jewels in this crown of a production. If self-deluded Lear is every inch a king then Gina McKee’s Goneril is every inch a bitch. When she tells Lear how much she loves him in the opening scene her words are not directed at her father but at Cordelia, her eyes challenging her to “beat that” when it comes to her turn. It’s a very mature and physical performance – when she comes on strong to Edmund she really turns on the sex-factor, frankly masturbating in front of him. You wouldn’t want to upset her; I’ve never seen Albany being grabbed by the testicles to mock his weakness before. “Goneril and the Gonads” makes a very sharp impression, and the audience cringes with discomfort.

Justine MitchellShe is well matched in villainy by Justine Mitchell’s Regan. Looking all butter-wouldn’t-melt she beautifully underplays the scorn with which she suggests Lear’s retinue is diminished from a hundred to barely one. Her squeal of childish glee when Gloucester’s eyes are removed was stunningly horrific. It had all the excitement of a little girl unable to contain herself at a birthday party.

Alec Newman As the other bastard in this play, although this time a real Bastard too, Alec Newman is a very dashing Edmund, and totally believable; you’d swear he was telling the truth about Edgar’s plot to kill his father. Some Edmunds are rather cold and collected in their approach to their plot, but this is a very excitable one, glorying in his wicked plans, impatient to get on in life. When he’s playing Goneril and Regan off against each other you can see his genuine delight at the sport, it’s a really sexy game for him.

Gideon Turner The rest of the cast all play their parts very well, Gideon Turner’s Cornwall was very convincing as the unapologetically malevolent putter-outer of Gloucester’s eyes (I particularly liked –if that is the word – the way he threw the second eye on to the floor and you heard it bounce) and Gwilym Lee Gwilym Lee as Edgar’s Poor Tom character did actually bring a tear to my eye with his sorrow at seeing his blind father. As is often the case, Lear’s entry with the dead Cordelia in his arms brought a lump to the throat. It was Jacobi’s “Howl! Howl! Howl!” (Act V Scene III, line 256) that did it.

One thing I really admired about this production is how there was barely any staging or furniture. The unchanging set is just three walls and a ceiling made of planks with various shades of white and grey daubed on them (with additional splashes of red after Gloucester’s blinding). Lights behind slim gaps between the planks create the lightning effect for the heath. For props and furniture, there was a chair, a joint-stool, a map, a few letters, some jewellery and swords and a bit of earth for Edgar’s Tom make-up. This really means that all your attention is on the words, the characters, the acting. Having seen a number of over-staged productions recently it’s thrilling to see the drama evolve unadulterated by minutiae.

Additionally I should mention that Adam Cork won the Olivier Award for best Sound Design for this production, which is a fitting reward for the moody, scary, disquieting atmospheres that he has created. Lear on the heath is a very different interpretation from the traditional – the words are delivered much more calmly and quietly than usual – but the sound design helps create a very spooky experience.

It’s excellent that the Donmar is making this production available to a much larger audience. The Milton Keynes Theatre was sold out for a Wednesday evening, which is good news for business. It’s a great, stark production that lets the text do the talking and with some fine characterisations of its villains and victims to inhabit it.