Review: King Lear (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)

Ian McKellen stars in Jonathan Munby’s superb production of Shakespeare’s tragedy

Jonathan Munby’s production heralds Ian McKellen‘s second take on Lear following Trevor Nunn’s production for the RSC in 2007. This production, on the smaller Minerva stage, creates a more intimate experience.

At first sight, it looks like we’re in for a recap of the RSC production – the elaborate uniforms are all in place – but we quickly find ourselves in another world entirely.

Descending on Regan’s house, dressed like a country gentleman, with a retinue of braying Bullingdon club boys, this is a king determined to enjoy the fruits of his retirement and let his hair down. That’s not entirely a metaphor: he’s regularly fiddling with his hair, as if it’s finally unencumbered of the crown.

The ten years since his last Lear have added a new dimension to McKellen’s performance, this is a man struggling to come to terms with the diminution of his powers – physical, mental and regal. There’s a quiet resignation about him: even the "blow winds" speech is not presented as a raging against the storm but an acceptance that this is the way of the world.

It’s a performance that is seen at its best in the scene with Danny Webb’s excellent Gloucester: two old men, thrust onto this stage of fools, and reaching an understanding that their own actions have brought them to the present place.

It’s not just about McKellen’s performance though, as good as it is. There’s an excellent supporting cast: Damien Molony‘s smooth-talking Irish charmer of an Edmund – it’s easy to see why so many fall for his deceptions; Jonathan Bailey‘s noble Edgar, and Phil Daniels‘ music-hall entertainer of a Fool. Particularly strong are the trio of daughters all of whom dazzle in their own way: the heartfelt simplicity of Tamara Lawrance‘s Cordelia, the controlled Goneril of Dervla Kirwan and, best of all, Kirsty Bushell‘s psychopathic Regan, dancing with sexual frenzy at Gloucester’s blinding.
Kent has undergone a sex change and has become a countess, and it’s a change that works well: her sympathy for Cordelia looks more natural in the male-dominated world of Lear’s court. But Munby’s eye for detail highlights even minor cast members, notably Michael Matus’s creepily unctuous Oswald.

Paul Wills’ deceptively simple set serves as palace and hovel, and transports us from heath to Dover cliffs in an instant. The action is also complemented by an atmospheric score from Ben and Max Ringham. This is a production surely destined for the London stage, Chichester can count itself lucky.

King Lear runs at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 28 October.