After the Tom Hiddleston Hamlet played at RADA’s 160-seater Vanburgh Theatre for just three weeks, this year’s second most exclusive Shakespearean production sees Ian McKellen as King Lear in the slightly larger (283-seat) Minerva Theatre at Chichester for five weeks.
The fashion for studio Shakespeare was partly ignited by McKellen’s Macbeth at the Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon 41 years ago, so it seems appropriate that he’s come back, at the age of 78, to take on the role of one of Shakespeare’s other anguished monarchs in such an intimate place.
This King Lear is an intensely moving experience, not just for its piercing portrait of advancing mortality and a man losing his grip both on power and of himself, but also for the melancholic weight of age that McKellen inevitably now brings to it. He is 10 years older now than when he last played the role for the Royal Shakespeare Company and in a very different setting of both production and theatre.
After the lavish, Ruritania-inspired, classically-costumed 2007 RSC production that was set on a large thrust stage and amplified the play’s sense of theatricality by being set in a theatre auditorium, this time McKellen is in the wraparound intimacy of the Minerva, in a modern-dress staging that is both urgent and driven.
“I am old and foolish,” Lear tells his daughter Cordelia in Act Four, but as a man losing his faculties before us, McKellen is in full command of a lifetime’s acting technique. The performance is shorn of some of his more familiar displays of actorly intensity and he happily eschews the nude revelation on the heath that became a distraction in the RSC version.
Instead, there’s a penetrating and pervading sense of loss and bewilderment as two of his daughters betray him, and his third and most beloved, whom he banished, returns and they heartbreakingly reconcile. As played by McKellen and the astonishing Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia, who at just 23 has already played Viola in Twelfth Night at the National, it is full of love and forgiveness.
Jonathan Munby’s production, which plays out on a large circular red velvet carpeted disc that later becomes a barren white chalk stone surface, has the drive and cross-cut dramatic urgency of a Netflix thriller. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and the music by Ben and Max Ringham become like additional characters populating and animating the stage.
It is also blessed with luxury casting throughout, with Sinead Cusack as a gender-swapped Kent, Danny Webb as Gloucester and Phil Daniels as the Fool bringing an appropriate seniority to match McKellen, while Dervla Kirwan and Kirsty Bushell thrill and chill as the malevolent, power-dressing Goneril and Regan.
There’s strong work, too, from Jonathan Bailey as a notably lithe Edgar, Damien Molony as Edmund, and the superb Michael Matus as a blustering Oswald.