Our collective theatre memory is full of remarkable performances, whenever a show is revived someone in the production or at least one of the critics will refer to a definitive performance they once saw from a great actor of the past, a benchmark for every subsequent version we see. This is particularly true for Shakespeare, so as we continue to revere Olivier, Gielgud and the rest, audiences may begin to think they will never see anything to match them. It’s all nonsense of course, the stand-out performances in any era are often only judged so in retrospect and modern theatre offers much that will be remembered. But once in a while you know you’re in the presence of greatness and Ian McKellen’s King Lear will be talked about for years to come.
Shakespeare’s plays are eternally relevant, whatever the external socio-political circumstances of the times, they fit, and thus King Lear comes around with considerable regularity. It’s a difficult play to pace correctly and can sometimes feel overly ponderous or meandering. By extension the star power of whoever play’s Lear can also drown out the surround cast, diluting the important political and dynastic machinations that drive the plot.
No such worries in this carefully controlled and cohesive transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre, the latest of their programme to come into town, in which Director Jonathan Munby gives equal weighting to the three elements of the plot, tempering the extraordinary charisma of his leading man by generating interest in the play’s contingent storylines – the grasping power of Regan and Goneril, and the destruction of Gloucester’s family.
The corrupting nature of power and its association with ensuing madness are frequent themes across many of Shakespeare’s political and tragic plays. Macbeth violently seizes power and loses his sanity, Hamlet’s balance is disturbed by his Uncle’s equally aggressive dispatch of the rightful King, while Coriolanus’s delusional obsession with his own popularity leads to tyranny. This version of King Lear uses his faulty decision to share his kingdom as the very essence of his madness. The poor use of power is a symptom of what’s to come rather than his subsequent rejection, placing the monarch in a web of intrigue that seemed always waiting to ensnare him.
With so many shouty Lear’s in recent years, it’s refreshing to see an interpretation that’s considerably more varied, drawing out the sensitive and gentle aspects of lost identity to temper the fewer, and here more unexpected, moments of rage and cruelty. There is a real honesty and sensitivity in the way Lear’s madness is presented, and, as anyone who has lived with dementia sufferers will know, there is huge variety in mood and interaction across any single day. Moments of perfect lucidity are common, intermingled with calm loops of memory and confusion about timelines, while the flashes of bitter anger and frustration pass as rapidly and vigorously as they emerged.
You see all of this in McKellen’s performance, and as he gives away his lands there are couple of small contortions of the face in which Lear struggles to retain his train of thought, and overwhelming emotion tries to force its way up his throat like reflux. This Lear does rage but only rarely, when he is unable to process the responses of those around him or his own feelings. The bitter curses he heaps on Goneril are all the more shocking for seeming to come from nowhere, one minute a reasonable conversation, the next an invective on sterility, before fading once more to a quieter resignation. You see this change of weather pass across McKellen’s face, a clear and subtle impression of those shifting faculties in his mind that become increasingly pitiable, rather than the result of his hateful tyranny. This is a Lear who cannot control what is happening to him and the result is very moving.
This softer approach also makes sense of the notion of injustice that plagues the King throughout the play, and the obsessive way his mind returns again and again to the clawing ingratitude of his two eldest daughters, reiterating the idea of this as a trigger rather than the sole cause of his decline. The melancholic sorrow with which McKellen’s Lear references the cause of his undoing implies the personal loss of a father’s deluded love for his ungrateful children rather than the more bombastic approaches to the character that emphasis the loss of sovereignty. This Lear sees the Duchesses of Cornwall and Albany for what they really are, and it breaks him.
McKellen is so quiet as Lear, with so much of his performance and emotion expressed in small contained movements, a tiny and frail human unable to fight against the elements and fates stacked against him. This stripping of kingship to reveal the fallible man below is something Shakespeare explored many times – not least in Henry V’s pre-battle qualms – and McKellen draws on that to considerable effect to show the easy ruin of a man whose anointed greatness is no barrier to pain, destitution and lovelessness.
McKellen is so memorable in this role because he slowly introduces Lear’s metamorphosis, cracking the surface of the monarch so chinks of confused mind start to show through the performance until only fragments of the true Lear are left, disparate and near unreachable. When early on he lingers a beat too long on a comment about treating Cordelia badly, it is so small a remark you almost miss it, but it reveals everything about the slow tearing at his heart and conscience that McKellen uses to rake across the mind of his character, a constant sense of thoughts in flux and flutter.
Despite his considerable star power, McKellen’s collaborative approach keeps the play perfectly in balance, leaving room for the intricate parallel narratives that reflect his own trajectory and allowing other characters equal space to shine, not least Luke Thompson’s Edgar driven to feign madness away from Court when his reputation is maligned by his base-born half-brother. Thompson’s star has been steadily rising for some time with notable roles in numerous classical productions, including a fresh take on Laertes in Robert Icke’s 2017 Hamlet where his approach mirrored the fatal indecision of Andrew Scott’s protagonist.
The role of Edgar can sometimes be too overplayed, to exuberantly mad when he assumes the name of Tom. Instead, Thompson uses his experience of Hamlet to provide a counterpoint to Lear’s decline, but with more stage time than his previous roles, this part gives him scope to display a range of skills. First seen as a clean-cut hero in appropriate military dress, attending on the pomp and ceremony of Lear’s Court, the panicked Edgar hides himself in the believable feigned madness of Tom, adopting three distinct accents to delineate the various personalities he assumes, including a very passable Scottish brogue as Tom.
There is also a vigorous and well executed fight scene in the play’s final moments as Edgar tries to disarm his knife-wielding brother in hand-to-hand combat, while Thompson also brings to bear all the tenderness and emotional sensitivity that Edgar feels for the destroyed parallel figures of his own father, Gloucester, and his plagued former monarch. He credible assumes the role of saviour, a good honest man whose moral rectitude and kind heart wins the respect of the audience and his kingdom.
There is a semi-religious concept of morality that runs through Director Jonathan Munby’s production, and aside from Edgar the only core player left standing is Anthony Howell’s Albany (who previously worked with Thompson on The Globe’s Julius Caesar), a man betrayed by his wife but presented as upstanding enough to retain his life and presumably the country. Claire Price as Goneril and Kirsty Bushell as Regan deliberately make the sisters initially more reasonable and less caricatured than other productions often do. They both appear modest and stately in declaring their love for their father, but power corrupts them. Price is a despairing country gentlewoman exasperated by her cantankerous parent, while Bushell’s more glamorous Regan has a potent sexually charged relationship with her husband (Daniel Rabin) that seems to quite naturally tip into sadism.
Like Hamlet, King Lear is a double tragedy and both plays show an ordinary family destroyed by its proximity to the throne, innocent casualties of wider political games. The Gloucester subplot is often the most poignant, particularly when the Royal Family are portrayed as unlikable tyrants, and Danny Webb’s Gloucester carefully draws-out all the emotion and sympathy the role can offer. The famous eye gouging scene is brutal as ever, but the clifftop despair and regret for his mistakes are made quite tenderly. As his scheming bastard son, James Corrigan is suitably villainous and calculating, easily pulling the strings of those around him to serve his own advancement.
Munby’s production is still a lengthy affair at around three and a half hours, but all the elements of the story are so well knitted together that it takes on its own momentum, even with a lengthy two hour run to the only interval. But there is a consistent vision for the show which balances and reflects the pitch of the performances, presenting a semi-military Royal state, not dissimilar from our own, that revels in its Court rituals as well its country pursuits. Designer Paul Wills surrounds the stage with a semi-circle of Jacobean panelling, and, in Goneril’s house, presents a dinner party full of men in country tweeds, a macho shooting party that looks, and behaves, like The Riot Club.
The first part of the show is performed on a blood red circle of carpet that becomes soaked in rain water which the actors must slosh around on, as though wading in their own wickedness. Events reach their crisis in an abattoir complete with carcasses and severed animal heads where Gloucester loses his eyes before the interval, but later as redemption and moral correction dominate the story, the circle is made white and the panelling peels back to reveal white walls. The carefully considered symbolism of the staging is subtle but reveals the slow unravelling of privilege, a monarchy wiped out and evil purged from the land.
Unusually, there is still more than a week of preview performances before Press Night, but this Chichester transfer has hit its stride early. After the scramble for tickets earlier this year, hour-long queues, having seats selected for you based on pay bands and crashing websites, just getting to the checkout may have seemed like a miracle, but it was worth it. King Lear has long been a test for actors of a certain age, but the focus on the star playing the declining monarch can under-power the rest of the story. It’s a relief to see a production that tightens its core, with Munby giving equal weight to each strand so as to build proper momentum. A memorable interpretation with a theatre superstar giving one of his finest and most generous performances.
King Lear is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3 November and tickets start at £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1