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Theatre review: King Lear

John Nathan finds a message for our times in a modern dress King Lear

Minerva Theatre, Chichester

    Ian McKellan as Lear
    Ian McKellan as Lear Photo: Manuel Harlan

    A ruling class that pounds out the national anthem like a war cry; a country in the grip of madness; a political climate in which chaos and barbarity thrive and a leader who lives under the delusion of being strong and stable.

    Granted, it’s a bit of a stretch to see Theresa May in Ian McKellen’s second King Lear in a decade. Or, for that matter, her cabinet in the self-serving disloyalty of those closest to the King. But Jonathan Munby’s production has the air of one that sees our own times in Shakespeare’s tragedy, and the authority to make the case.

    From the moment McKellen’s Lear zips up a briefing folder with a kind of bored flourish, there is the possibility that the insanity that drives his actions may not be his own but rather caught, like a virus.

    The play is acted on a disc of red carpet. The style is modern-dress, often tweedy, upper-class and that of the country gent. There are also a lot of British Army uniforms. Lear’s closest ally, Kent, is a woman here, convincingly played by Sinéad Cusack when confronting the implacable certainty of the King, though less convincing when disguised as the male Caius.

    McKellen is on commanding form. At 78, Shakespeare’s monumental role must be a good deal more demanding on the body than it was 10 years ago. Going down on one knee requires a technique every bit as honed as Lear’s speeches. But McKellen delivers a meticulously observed portrait of a man who, having relinquished his power to his daughters, retains his sense of entitlement.

    Every humiliation meted out by his progeny Regan (Kirsty Bushell) and Goneril (Dervla Kirwan) is a mortal wound. And whereas his RSC Lear became known for the bold — perhaps too bold — nudity with which he performed the storm scene, this time he is in Savile Row finery as the torrential rain falls.

    It is a wonderfully executed passage of the play in which the bluff and bluster is washed away and replaced with humility. Yet, even when McKellen’s Lear is at his most wretched, he is hard to like. And to feel the full effect of his grief at the death of his beloved youngest Cordelia (Tamara Lawrance), you need to feel love, not just sympathy for the old campaigner.

    Still, McKellen’s is a hugely powerful performance, all the more so for the intimacy of the Minerva’s stage. Munby injects the action with the pace of a political thriller. And there’s excellent work, too, from Danny Webb’s Gloucester whose eyes are put out here in an abattoir, and Damien Molony as the bastard Edmund who deploys charm-like poison. And, anyway, in a production that feels made for our times, who is to say that it is not entirely appropriate for Lear to be an unlikeable leader.

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