‘King Lear’ by William Shakespeare
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
The first season with Daniel Evans and Rachel Tackley in charge of Chichester Festival Theatre is crowned with a memorable production of King Lear in the Minerva. Any doubts about staging yet again one of Shakespeare’s bleakest, bitterest and bloodiest plays are removed by Jonathan Munby’s exemplary direction and a fine ensemble cast, led by Sir Ian McKellen.
This production marks another return to Lear in the last few years. These include: Frank Langella’s superb performance at the Minerva in 2013, the somewhat disappointing National Theatre version with Simon Russell Beale in 2014, and Anthony Sher in Gregory Doran’s RSC production last year. In the current programme notes, written by the actors and production team, Sir Ian says that he welcomed the chance to play Lear again when he himself was a similar age to the character, in his eighties.
“I’m not the first actor who has wanted to return to this play, as if unfinished business. Perhaps it’s just that the closer you get to the king’s age, the more telling it becomes; for some, more a therapy than a job.” Sir Ian was a highly praised Lear directed by Trevor Nunn at the RSC 10 years ago, and this was turned into a TV film. Sir Ian also wanted to perform in the intimate surroundings of the Minerva.
King Lear embraces authority and chaos, misjudgement and madness, age and infirmity, betrayal and brutality, justice and injustice. At the end there is reconciliation but only when Cordelia lies dead in the arms of her father who is briefly finds humility and sense. But Britain is left in ruins, without government. At the end of the play Edgar speaks to our time, when untruth has become so significant in our world: ”The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
At first Lear is an unsympathetic character. A quick-tempered authoritarian, used to absolute power, he is removed from knowing or understanding himself, his children, his court or his circumstances. Haunted by his age and a fear of madness even in Act 1, Lear is fevered with his lack of self knowledge: “‘Tis the infirmity of is age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.”
And he also has a sense of his own senility: “Oh! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; Keep me in temper; I would not be mad.”
For a start, Lear was mad to believe that he could surrender his power to his daughters while keeping their love and support, and retaining his authority without responsibility; that he and everyone else would be happy with his retirement hunting and roistering with his 100 knights; and that power would not corrupt his children and turn them against him. “Does thou call me fool, boy?” He asks his Fool, who replies: “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that wast thou born with.”
Lear’s anguish is mirrored by that of his servant Gloucester, an adulterer who trusts his bastard son Edmund rather than his natural heir, Edgar. The engrossing action works well within the close confines of the Minerva, whether Lear is celebrating at table with his knights, or out on the bleak, cold, rain-lashed heath. We were warned before the play began that there would be two hours before the interval but the production did not drag for one moment and time passed swiftly. This is a tribute to the work of director Jonathan Munby. His production is far bigger than the sum of its parts and he brings great clarity to this complicated work.
Phil Daniels exemplifies this as a Fool who looks and performs like a cross between Eric Morecambe and Elvis Costello; he is both witty and wise, whereas sometimes the character seems crass and convoluted. Some of the playing is uneven, and that includes Sir Ian. Neither Goneril (Dervla Kirwan) nor Regan (Kirsty Bushell) completely convince as the evil sisters. Damien Molony does not seem devilish enough as Edmund. But Danny Webb makes a convincing Gloucester and Michael Matus earns his laughs as the servant Oswald.
While it is a surprise to find the Earl of Kent/Caius played by a woman, Sinéad Cusack brings great vitality to the part of a noble who is both loyal to the king and outspokenly blunt (especially when disguised as Caius after his/her expulsion from court). These minor criticisms should not detract from an extremely high-class exposition of King Lear, which runs at the Minerva until October 28.