I have long had an obsession with King Lear. I studied it as an A Level student and fell in love with the poetry of the language and the wealth of fascinating characters, even the more one-dimensional ones (I admire any actor who can make the virtuous, highly symbolic Cordelia interesting). Now many years on, it remains my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays (Much Ado leading as my favourite of his comedies) and I have avidly collected productions the way others might collect stamps.
My favourite production was the Almeida 2002 production with Oliver Ford Davies as Lear. My reason for loving it was that while Ford Davies was a strong Lear, the whole cast were magnificent and under Jonathan Kent’s direction the full world of the play came to life. Given the tendency for Lear to be a vehicle for celebrated actors of a certain age to showcase their skill, I’ve seen many where Lear outshines the overall production. I saw that Almeida production 4 times, at a cash strapped time in my life, I couldn’t resist going back for more.
Following that production I’ve seen many Lears but by no means all of them (there are the years from 2006-2011 that I was living in Australia, so I will have missed all UK based productions during this time period) and I’ve enjoyed most of them to greater or lesser degrees.
The next Lear that really resonated with me was at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2013 with Frank Langella in the titular role. As with the Almeida production, this Lear came together as a perfected formed gem and the Minerva was a lovely intimate space for this epic play to live.
So when I heard that Sir Ian McKellen would be playing Lear in that very same intimate space this year, I was determined to go. I became a supporter of the Chichester Festival theatre to get access to the priority booking and secured my tickets for the Saturday matinee on 14th October, and have now waited almost a month to capture my thoughts about this production.
Why? Because I wanted to let my response percolate before I confirmed that this was now, my new favourite production of King Lear. It is hard to directly compare it to a production I saw in 2002, so I should really put them in joint first place. Although it isn’t a competition and there is no price for winning, I have my reasons for being comfortable saying that for me (these reactions are subjective and not based on some objective qualitative system of analysis, I’m not that geeky about it) the current Chichester production is about as perfect a production of King Lear as I could hope to find.
Why do I love it so much? Well Ian McKellen is wonderful as the King, but in shining in the role his light doesn’t cast shadows on the other actors, rather it illuminates them too. There is a generosity in McKellen’s acting evident here (and also in the other times I’ve been lucky enough to see him on stage) that gives the whole cast the space to breathe life into their characters, no matter how small – one of the biggest laughs of the production comes from the reaction of a soldier (played by a member of the company) to Lear’s evident madness. A much needed moment of respite as the play heads steadily to its tragic finale.
Tamara Lawrance’s Cordelia is strong and interesting. Her warning to her sisters to take care of their father feels like it has weight behind it. Lear’s rejection and subsequent reunion with her both resonate emotionally, ensuring the full tragic punch of the play lands.
In other productions Goneril and Regan feel like interchangeable baddies, but in this production they have clearly distinguishable characters. Kirsty Bushell’s unnerving giggle brought a sense of dark madness to Regan, while Dervla Kirwan brilliantly landed Goneril’s frustration at finding herself lumbered with a virtuous and, in her mind, dull husband. It makes their rivalry for Edmund’s affections feel all the more real.
As for Edmund (my favourite villain so I tend to be fussy), Damien Molony is compelling and beguiling in the role. He convincingly tricks his brother and father in a way that feels light and natural (I’ve seen enough heavy handed villainous Edmunds to last a lifetime). His rise to power and seductions of Goneril and Regan are played with a seamless authenticity that is a joy to watch. Even his last minute, too late, pang of conscience lands (one of the few moments in this beautiful play that I normally find jarring).
Danny Webb, Phil Daniels, Sinead Cusack, Patrick Robinson, Jonathan Bailey and Michael Matus as Gloucester, The Fool, Kent, Cornwall, Edgar and Oswald respectively, all play their parts faultlessly and it is a thing of beauty to experience.
The revelation for me was Dominic Mafham’s Albany. Let’s be honest, most of the time when we watch Lear we can’t help but agree with Goneril that her husband is a bit of a wet blanket. Not here. Albany, the dull & virtuous, blossoms into a dynamic soldier and leader. He steps out of the shadow of Goneril’s low opinion and it makes the battle and victory scenes so much more compelling as a result.
So thank you Director Jonathan Munby for bringing so much passion, nuance and understanding to my favourite Shakespearean tragedy. I wish all productions could do justice to the play as a whole, rather than treating it as a cash cow celebrity vehicle.