Review: King Lear at Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Picture by Manuel Harlan
Picture by Manuel Harlan

When a performance is as voraciously anticipated as Ian McKellen portrayal of King Lear there is an inevitable risk that reality must defeat expectation.

After all, Lear is the ultimate professional mountain to climb for any actor and McKellen conquered it a decade ago. To reprise the triumph at the age of 78 in a theatre so compact the audience will snatch at a single misplaced hesitation tempts fate more daringly than any Shakespeare plot.

But McKellen does not disappoint. Despite a three and an half hour cerebral and physical workout in the Minerva’s ring, often brutal, occasionally sensual, at one point saturated in rain, he proves that the intervening decade has taken nothing and added much.

Nor is he abandoned to the audience alone. The distinguished supporting cast ranges from Dervla Kirwan to Sinead Cusack.

Director Jonathan Munby avoids all the inherent traps. The modern setting, raw and visually potent, reinforces the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s emotional truth.

These are thoughts that have lost nothing with the centuries. The ingratitude of children, the vulnerabilities of the old, the desires of the flesh, and the allures of power are timeless.

But that contemporary proposition, which sweeps effortlessly from the trappings of accepted civilization to the plucking of the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes in an abattoir reminds us too how fragile today’s society stands.

The opening scene has the resplendent king preparing to divide Great Britain into three parcels for each of his daughters. But they must first persuade him with a soliloquy of their love for him.

Only the youngest, the apple of his eye, Cordelia (Tamara Lawrance) fails in her commission. After choosing gentle honesty over the sycophancy of her sisters, her banishment and that of Kent reinforces the play’s final message that you should judge by actions not words.

Jonathan Bailey’s Edgar who endures much in the service of his father, dazzles. Danny Webb as that father, blinded in the course of the play’s violence, adds soft despair.

But this is McKellen’s assured triumph. In an aging population where dementia now stands as the greatest threat and the young abandon their families to care homes, he captures that conceit between power and decline with a measured elegance that reminds us all that Lear’s tragedy is also our own.