Given the turbulent state of the world in recent times, it’s no wonder that the King Lears keep coming (indeed, a new screen version starring Anthony Hopkins has just been announced) – the latest just so happens to be one of the most hotly anticipated shows of the year. Jonathan Munby’s production sees Sir Ian McKellen return to the play after taking on the role for the RSC 10 years ago; McKellen has undergone something of a Lear apprenticeship over the course of his career, playing Edgar in 1974 and Kent in 1990.
The elderly Lear has decided to retire from the management of his kingdom, dividing it into three to gift to each of his daughters. In his vanity, he asks Goneril, Regan and Cordelia to profess how much they love him – whilst the older sisters pander to their father’s wishes, Cordelia (Lear’s obvious favourite) can only speak the truth rather than flatter. In a rage, Lear gives her portion of the kingdom to her sisters and refuses to honour the dowry he had previously attached to Cordelia; Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France is far from put off. Alongside this is some further familial strife, as bastard son Edmund sets his father (the Earl of Gloucester) against his legitimate son Edgar, in a bid to claim his half-brother’s inheritance. These two family rifts set off a chain of torture, madness and war, with many paying the ultimate price.
King Lear is a play that usually demands scale and vastness, so for that reason (as well as the obvious commercial benefits) it seemed a strange idea to stage it in the Minerva, the smaller of Chichester’s theatres. However, the thrust performance space and relative intimacy between actor and audience serves to intensify the experience, casting it in a completely new light. All the initial pomp and ceremony remain, and it still manages to create a sense of isolation as Lear’s followers diminish and he slowly loses his mind. Don’t get your hopes up for a transfer though – this more intimate setting came at McKellen’s suggestion, after having played the role in theatres too large for him to be able to perform as he had hoped.
Munby’s direction makes dynamic use of every inch of the performance area, with the suggestion of the modern British Royal Family in its setting bringing it closer to home. The emphasis given to what can be throwaway lines referencing pre-Christianity religious figures is very clever, and lends itself to a set of rituals and gestures that the king’s court can observe.
The clarity of this directional focus is further enhanced by Paul Wills’ design. The costumes are what really hint at the Windsors, with the recognisable faux military dress for the men at state functions and the well-tailored dresses and ensembles for the women, as well as the iconic sashes, and tweeds for some more casual scenarios. The staging is fairly simple, with not too many props; any furniture that is required is smoothly brought on and off, never once affecting the pace of the production.
Given the smaller space, the storm scenes are particularly well done, giving the cast an unrelenting (and thoroughly believable) drenching; it’s an extra test of physical endurance which makes the production that bit more rewarding – for the audience, at least! The eye-gouging scene is also very well done, with no thought of shying away from a bit of gore. The irony is that it’s so horrifically compelling that you find it impossible to tear your eyes away from the action… A final highlight has to be Edmund and Edgar’s final face-off. Kate Waters’ fight direction here is possibly the best example of stage combat I’ve ever witnessed – well conceived and performed, keeping storytelling at the forefront rather than going all out for effect.
There is not a weak link in the cast, combining experienced Shakespearean actors with Bard newbies. Danny Webb is also making a return to this particular play; after playing Cornwall in the Glenda Jackson-led Old Vic production, he is here on the opposite end of an eye-gouging as he takes on the role of Gloucester. It’s interesting to note that within quite a short space of time the same actor has portrayed two opposing characters within this play – Webb’s Gloucester is understated, but fiercely loyal. Phil Daniels is excellent as the Fool, entertaining enough to justify the title (using his natural comic gift to his advantage), but with just the right stuff to make some of his home truths to Lear quite hard-hitting. The Fool famously disappears from Shakespeare’s text halfway thriugh without explanation (though some productions take act 5 scene 3’s “And my poor fool is hanged” as an allusion to his/her fate) – Munby’s production deals with this issue in an impressive, but highly shocking, twist at the end of the first half.
The two older sisters, Goneril and Regan, are eerily reminiscent of more specific figures in our royal family; in both costume and attitudes they bring to mind warped versions of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Dervla Kirwan as Goneril, the eldest, exudes calm, control and purpose, wearing sharp dress suits and appearing (to all intents and purposes) to be the dutiful daughter. On the other hand Kirsty Bushell, as Regan, is slightly less conventional – full of giddy energy, she jumps between excitement and aggression at the drop of a hat.
There’s something quite extraordinary about Jonathan Bailey’s portrayal of Edgar. The rightful heir to the earldom, he is quite obviously wronged by his half-brother, though occasionally his treatment can be seen as a wake-up call if Edgar comes across as either too cocky or too nicey-nicey. Here, Bailey brings a real humanity to Edgar. He clearly knows how things work at court, but is in no way antagonistic towards Edmund; on the surface they appear to have a healthy relationship. Watching his reactions, disguised as Poor Tom, to his blinded father’s despair and then newfound hope is intensely moving – and his speech to end the play manages to speak to every individual in the theatre.
Opposite him is Damien Molony as Edmund. Regular readers will be aware that this is my favourite character in the entire play, so my instinct told me this was a perfect piece of casting – and it was not wrong. Molony captures Edmund’s feelings of being an outsider, demonstrated perfectly as he has to hurriedly copy the court gestures, as well as being something of a rebel. Had he been legitimate, perhaps this would make him an unpolished diamond, instead his status has started to eat away at him and leads to his plan to usurp Edgar’s place. These scenes play out at pace once Edmund has confided in us, Molony showing him to be quick-witter and expertly two-faced; as he seems to succeed with such ease, he becomes steadily more nefarious, only momentarily blind-sided by the love triangle in which he finds himself with Regan and Goneril. A superlative Shakespearean debut.
At 78, Sir Ian McKellen is very close to King Lear’s actual age (“fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less”), though to see his performance you might find this hard to believe. Underlying this is an incredible strength and energy, as well as a clear enthusiasm for both the text and his art. McKellen’s portrayal feels very natural; a complex combination of witty, gruff, imperious and pitiful, he has the eponymous monarch’s spirit in every step he takes. A commanding performance that cements him as one of our very finest – and no wonder he’s said that this will likely be his “last big Shakespeare part”, as it would be incredibly hard to surpass.
My verdict? The best production of King Lear I have seen, boasting a wildly talented company and a tight focus that drives the plot masterfully – a true honour to watch.
King Lear runs at the Minerva Theatre (Chichester) until 28 October 2017. Tickets are sold out – a returns queue is in operation.