I’ve long been a fan of Ian McKellan – the serious actor, not the Gandalf or X-Men character (though I thought he was great as Gandalf) – and when I heard he was performing King Lear at the small Minerva Theatre in Chichester, I made sure to get tickets. As often with the theater in the UK, this involves taking out a membership to be able to buy tickets before they go on sale to the general public. (We have memberships currently at four theaters, alas.) I was able to get front row seats for this short run of about five weeks.
Expectations have a great influence on how one appreciates an event, and one is at times disappointed, because the ideas one has in the mind exceed the actual event. This was not the case with this production of King Lear.
The theater itself is one of the key elements to this production. Small, with just 280 seats, and with a thrust stage, there are only seven rows, so even if you’re in the last row you’re not far from the stage. This means the actors don’t have to project their voices very much; their tone can be more conversational. Watching this performance from the front row was like having King Lear in one’s living room; albeit a large living room. The stage itself was a circle, about 25 feet in diameter, and about a foot high; this meant that the actors were at the same level as the audience. Covered with a red carpet for the first part of the performance, it was a stark chalky white for the second part.
Lear opens with a brief scene where Gloucester is talking with Kent, and introduces his bastard son Edmund. It then switches to the scene that sets everything in motion, where Lear splits up his kingdom among his three daughters. The characters in modern dress enter with pomp and music, all of them singing in praise for the great King Lear. The wall behind the stage opens to show a huge painting of Lear, and a lectern is installed, where the king speaks. A large desk brought onto the stage for him to use dividing his lands on a map (with scissors).
(Photos by Manuel Harlan.)
The tone of the production is set in this long scene. The way Lear acts, and the way his fawning daughters (Goneril and Regan) talk to him, show their relationship, and Cordelia’s character also comes through in her refusal to say that she loves him other than “According to my bond; nor more nor less.”
It is immediately clear that Ian McKellan is Lear. He has played this role before (notably in the 2007 Royal Shakespeare Company production, which, fortunately, was filmed (but not on stage: Amazon.com, Amazon UK)), and he fits into it like a glove. At 78 years old, McKellan said in a recent interview that this is probably his last big Shakespeare role. As the play continues, it seems as though he’s summing up his career, that this is to be his swan song.
And what a song it is. It’s easy to play Lear as mad, it’s easy to play him as angry, even suffering from dementia, but McKellan plays him as vulnerable, human, as a man who has lost his way, who is aware of his past greatness but who accepts that his time has come. As the play progresses, and he gets angry at Goneril and Regan, then sets out in a raging storm, it’s clear that he’s frustrated, and that he simply wants to be what he used to be: the great king, not the man now controlled by his daughters.
The storm scene is quite spectacular, with drenching rain pouring on Lear, the Fool, and Kent, then Edgar as Tom Bedlam, for about fifteen minutes. They are all drenched, and McKellan notably is soaked to the skin, as he removes his suit and shows his white shirt sticking to his skin. It almost looked as though the water was going to spill over the edge of the stage (there was no drain under the carpet, and the stage crew rushed in at the intermission to clean everything up), and from the front row, I could feel droplets of water misting through the air. All this contributed to the verisimilitude of the storm scene, which was much more poignant than some flashing lights and thundery sounds, as is often the case.
McKellan’s continuing despair is poignant, and, unlike some other Lears I’ve seen, doesn’t seem contrived. This is a man who clearly knows how to portray these emotions without artifice, as though they are natural. In last year’s RSC production of the play, Antony Sher was very good, but he was an actor acting; with McKellan, it’s an actor living the role.
As the play goes on to the inexorable end where Lear carries the dead Cordelia onto the stage (McKellan carries her on his back, another feat for this 78-year old), McKellan’s portrayal of grief is moving and sincere. As he dies at the end, one cannot but feel that he has really died, even though we know it’s all just a play.
But this production is not all Ian McKellan. He is supported by a very strong cast, including Sinéad Cusack as the Countess of Kent (instead of the usual Earl of Kent), who disguises herself as a man after she is banished by Lear. Kirsty Bushell as Regan is Excellent as the conniving daughter who plays with her sexuality, and is particularly aroused by violence, and Dervla Kirwan as the cold, steely Goneril. Tamara Lawrance had the right balance of respect and love for her father.
I’m generally not a fan of the Fool in this play, which is often played a bit over the top, but Phil Daniels had just the right tone, with his Benny Hill glasses and his banjo, to be Lear’s foil.
In Damien Molony’s first soliloquy as Edmund, I felt that I would not like this actor; he seemed to lightweight, too posh, but as the play went on, I truly appreciated his devious, snake-like approach to the role. Jonathan Bailey’s Edgar was also very good, as was Danny Webb’s Gloucester.
This was a visceral staging of King Lear. Not only the storm scene, which brought an authentic storm into the small theater (and didn’t overdo the sound effects, which can make it hard to hear Lear’s rants), but also the gruesome scene where Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes in an abattoir.
This is a great King Lear. The acting, the production, and the intimacy of the theater combine to make it a memorable performance. In this day of theater productions being filmed, it would be wonderful to have a record of this, especially as Ian McKellan’s last big Shakespeare role.