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 – Plenty, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonHaving seen Racing Demon on the Saturday matinee, we went the whole hog and stayed for David Hare’s Plenty in the Studio theatre for the evening performance.

I remember seeing the 1978 National Theatre production of Plenty with Kate Nelligan. That is, Kate Nelligan played Susan Traherne in the original production; she and I didn’t have an interval ice-cream and share a kebab after the show. My memory of that production is that it was a very strong play, with an excellent sense of story-telling, and with a super central performance by Ms Nelligan. It’s very interesting to see it again 33 years later (gasp!) especially alongside Racing Demon. Plenty is a much less mature play. I think there are aspects of it where David Hare deliberately sets out to shock, rather than let his characters tell their story in their own way. It chooses to jump about with time, maybe has some gratuitous bad language, and nudity that you could probably do without; but it’s still an enjoyable play to watch and work out your feelings about the characters.

Plenty Susan Traherne, the young Secret Intelligence officer who clearly “had a good war”, is at the centre of the play that follows her subsequent career and life through the post war years; years that were promised to be a time of Plenty, but for Susan it was a mixed bag. At times and in some aspects of her life she could claim to be very successful, but as she gets older, and she suffers a decline in her mental health, she turns into something of a failure. Much has been made of her mental instability; is it an allegory of the decline in Britain’s power? Is her mental health in any way caused by the activities of the British government and society in general? For me, no. At first she is a bright positive achiever, when everything goes her way. But when she starts to get thwarted – viz. doing a job she feels is beneath her and her transaction to get pregnant with a man she barely knows, and which is unsuccessful – she starts to lose her way. And her childlessness goes to influence much of her future, and that of those around her.

Hattie Monahan Hattie Monahan plays Susan head-on, full of determination. Full of fear in her young war days, full of confidence in her early postwar days, full of manic glee as she declines in the late 50s and 60s. It’s a hard role, she’s rarely off stage, and she does it well. But the supporting cast almost take on that “supporting” role deferentially – which I wasn’t sure about. They help her with costume changes on stage between the scenes, which is a nifty way of getting it done, but I don’t think it should imply they are of lesser importance to the production. I have to say I was uncomfortable with the curtain call. All the cast except Ms Monahan come on stage and take their bows, then they all applaud as Hattie joins them and takes a separate series of bows. But it’s an ensemble piece. I don’t think it requires that differentiation between star and others, and it felt at odds with the otherwise egalitarian nature of this theatre.

Kirsty Bushell Alice, her friend, of whom she is sometimes jealous, sometimes dependant, is played with mischievous charm by Kirsty Bushell. The episodic nature of the piece allows the character of Alice to develop alongside Susan and they make a decent contrast. I thought she very nicely conveyed the almost patronising way one sometimes accidentally adopts when dealing with someone with mental health issues. It was like a bland kindness, but sincerely meant. Edward BennettThe other major role is that of Raymond Brock, Susan’s husband, who comes in and out of her life at different times and whose promising diplomatic career she ruins. Brock is played by Edward Bennett, who we saw in the titular role of the notable RSC production of Hamlet when David Tennant was the troubled Dane but then went off sick and Laertes took over the role at short notice. He was excellent in Hamlet and is excellent in this, giving some humanity to the otherwise stiff and starchy diplomatic staff; barkingly angry with his wife as she embarrasses him at social events.

Mrs Chrisparkle found herself talking to a lady next to her during the interval, who turned out to be Edward Bennett’s Auntie. His dad was sitting behind us. It was almost a family gathering in the stalls. In the first scene Brock is fast asleep naked and Alice picks up and holds his penis. I told you Hare was in a mood to shock. How embarrassing to have that done to you in front of your Auntie. I could never be an actor.

Whilst the seating is not as comfortable in the Studio as it is in the Crucible main house, the Studio is still a very engaging small space in which to stage an intimate piece. Plenty lends itself very well to this small area, even though as a play it has big staging moments – an airdropped spy coming in with his parachute attached for instance – and it’s a rewarding, thoroughly decent production, giving the audience lots to consider on their way home. You do feel sorry for Susan, who ended the war with the hope of “days and days like these”, but who had too much too young and basically fizzled out. You have to admire David Hare’s ability to create gripping characters.