King Lear, but not as you’ve seen it before

running until Saturday 28th October

King Lear seems to be the Shakespearean tragedy in favour across stages this past year. Out of 5 or 6 productions I’ve seen King Lear performed 3 times now, including earlier this year at the Barbican, the disintegrating luxury and ostentation of Antony Sher’s Lear directed by Gregory Doran. Amidst this continual rebirthing of Lear’s famous falling is this Jonathan Munby directed production at Chichester’s Minerva theatre, with Sir Ian McKellen as the jewel in the crown as Lear.

At over 3 hours long the prospect of watching King Lear can require some stamina. A man speaking to a Minerva theatre employee jokingly complained before the start as to why the show was starting at 7.45pm as it meant it wouldn’t finish until after 11pm, then bracingly reminded himself, “well if Ian can do it, then we should be able to!” The role is old hat to McKellen, having played Lear before 10 years ago for an RSC production by Trevor Nunn in 2007. McKellen has spoken of wanting to speak “the lines again, at times as conversation”.  The smaller setting of the Minerva Theatre is sympathetic to this desire, whereas the RSC Trevor Nunn version was performed in large theatres, requiring lines to be emphasised that could otherwise have been more softly spoken. In the relative intimacy of the Minerva theatre McKellen’s uses the smaller space to his advantage “not to act Lear, but to be Lear” (BBC interview). McKellen’s Lear is exceptionally powerful, brought to life with those all important natural whisperings, mumblings, stumblings and meaningful facial expressions (most poignantly McKellen’s eye roll upwards at the bloody close). McKellen is extraordinary then not just in the strength of crumbling into madness and loss night after night, but in the way his lines are delivered,  as if Shakespearean is a first language for him to be muttered and trailed off over yet still entirely sparkled with inventive interpretation born afresh.  If this is “probably” McKellen’s last big Shakespeare role as the BBC suggests then what a way to bid farewell to the Bard.

This is much more than a one man show though. Munby has cast loyal courtier Kent as a woman, brilliantly played by Sinéad Cusack, having reportedly stated “there aren’t enough female roles in the classical repertoire”. Regan and Goneril are given so much more than the usual evil ugly sister treatment. Kirsty Bushell is touchy-feely flirty as Regan, blowing air kisses and childishly jittery on glossy high heels. She strips down to change in one scene in front of the butler who is reminiscent in his slightly huffy attitude of the clock in Beauty and the Beast. Goneril (Dervla Kirwan) is calmer, quieter, more relatable in her grief as she watches Edmund (Damien Molony) duel. Fresh from the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night Tamara Lawrance plays a military Cordelia.

Being so close to a master in action was magic. We were a few rows back, enough to avoid being splashed by pouring rain (soon to be mixed with blood pooling on the red carpet circular stage) or clipped with a pig’s head tossed off stage, whilst being close enough to observe the storm of changing facial expressions and tiny movements. The intimacy is almost too much during the intensity of the Duke of Gloucester’s blinding scene, Regan flicking the radio on to Beggin’ by Madcon which blasts out in grim energetic satisfaction as Gloucester (Danny Webb) is held down on his chair, surrounded by hanging animal innards, and Regan dances in crazed glee, patent heels glinting. The stage is fascinating, the heavy rain fading to subsequent mist in the storm scene, players squelching across the carpet, the red carpet having been ripped open as Edgar (Jonathan Bailey) smears himself with dirt. The attention to detail keeps my interest keen. In the first scene McKellen is equipped with scissors and a paper map which he carelessly snips up, tossing pieces of Scotland and Ireland between his offspring’s husbands in a not so united misogynist kingdom, complete with a giant kingly portrait as backdrop. It is thrilling that a play as often performed as King Lear can still keep that element of reinvention and fresh meaning. There are rumours of a cinema screening, which I would very much recommend if it comes about.