Review Round-Ups

Were the critics mad for McKellen's King Lear?

Jonathan Munby’s production has opened at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester

Maxwell Cooter, WhatsOnStage


"…this is a king determined to enjoy the fruits of his retirement and let his hair down."

"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."

"It's not just about McKellen's performance though, as good as it is. There's an excellent supporting cast… best of all, Kirsty Bushell's psychopathic Regan, dancing with sexual frenzy at Gloucester's blinding."

"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."

Michael Billington, Guardian


"[McKellen] not only brings to the role deep theatrical experience but also takes full advantage of the intimacy of the space. It is like getting, in McKellen’s superbly detailed performance, a permanent closeup of a soul in torment."

"…much of the power of McKellen’s performance lies in the fact that every scene is given a precise context… This is a Lear who, stripped of ceremony and service, discovers what it means to be human."

"I still find much of the play puzzling… But Munby’s production, played on a circular red disc that turns to white hardboard as the action becomes more Beckettian, combines clarity and momentum."

"McKellen’s Lear… contains a performance rooted in minute observation of old age and a profound understanding of the enlightenment that comes from dispossession."

Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph


"Few roles are more arduous than Lear. There’s the sheer slogging length of the evening (this runs to three hours, plus interval), the intensity of the journey into madness and powerlessness as well…"

"The actor (perforce advanced in years) is even required (though some duck out) to carry on the dead Cordelia – a challenge the now 78-year-old McKellen meets, hauling Tamara Lawrance on his back, like Christ with the cross."

"One hopes, of course, that this isn’t the last time we’ll see him in Shakespeare or on stage but if this is his swansong, what a triumph – and one I fervently pray is caught on film."

Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard


"Jonathan Munby’s modern-dress account, clear-sighted rather than radical, begins with pageantry and ritualistic song. Yet it’s satisfyingly brisk and finds some uncomfortably visceral ways to embody the play’s imagery of a society plunged into chaos."

"But it is McKellen’s detailed performance that’s the production’s triumph. With finely measured intelligence he traces Lear’s inexorable movement from pomp via rage and shambolic delirium to melancholy tenderness and the agony of belated self-knowledge."

Ann Treneman, The Times


"It’s a showy production, directed by Jonathan Munby, not afraid to strut its stuff or make the costume department work overtime."

"It isn’t until we get to the great storm, though, that this production really comes into its own. The rain sheets down on the red-carpeted circular stage, pooling up, soaking Lear to the skin. "Tis a naughty night to swim in," says the Fool, bedraggled in a wrecked Columbo-type raincoat and comedy specs."

"But swim they almost did. The water sloshed around on that stage until I felt someone would get a tide table out. Soon, there were even more fluids: blood and guts, not to mention a pig’s head. Then there were the eyes, newly gouged, that were thrown and stomped on, squishing out into (I fear) the front row."

Paul Taylor, Independent


"In the wraparound intimacy of this space, McKellen is able to heighten the intensity of what Lear says through colloquial understatement and a playing-around with the beat and tempo of the verse that gives an almost jazz-like freedom and unpredictability to the king's utterances."

"I've never seen the terrible struggle with the bewilderment of failing faculties more piercingly captured than by McKellen nor the combination of "matter and impertinency mixed" come across as more volatile."

"This is a Lear strong on narrative excitement (there is one novel, cleverly suggested twist at the end of the first half) and, in a vivid cast, Kirsty Bushell's Regan is sexually aroused by violence, unlike the more controlled Goneril of Dervla Kirwan. We must fervently hope that the production will be filmed."

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