It opens full of pomp and majesty to hail a great, if flawed, king. Ian McKellen makes a grand entrance in this latest production of King Lear to play at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.
The intimate stage seems, at times, too small to hold this towering story of fathers and their wayward children, the naivety of one’s dotage and a story of treachery.
Indeed, it has proved a physical hindrance. Ticket sales for the production have gone through the roof with them being limited to only a pair per customer.
It has sold out, with fans eager to see the drama, told to try for returns. Perhaps the larger Festival Theatre stage would have been more apt.
It is a triumphant return to Chichester and Lear for McKellen. He was last at the theatre in 2011 and it has been a decade since he starred as the ageing king for an RSC production.
What is immediately obvious is how Jonathan Munby’s production relishes the theatre space. The big speeches, which would have roared from the vast stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company, here become nuanced conversations that are toned down in volume and intensity but just as potent.
McKellen not only seems ripe for the part but he gives an acting masterclass in subtlety.
His transformation from a bold and confident monarch into a feeble and decrepit half-wit, is so imperceptible and under-played that you wonder whether the aged actor himself is losing the plot.
Yet, despite the infirmed king being possibly on his death bed, he rallies to carry the body of Tamara Lawrance’s Cordelia on his back. Not bad for a man of 78.
This is a fine, if rather soggy, production with the remaining ensemble giving compelling turns – particularly Sinéad Cusack as Kent.
Having the honest and trusted adviser played by a woman is not just a tick in the box for gender-blind casting but an opportunity to add depth and fullness to the part. She’s almost like a mother, wife and daughter to the king and utterly devoted.
The storm scene, less atmospheric than in other productions, nonetheless, delivers gallons of water onto the stage’s red carpet, turning it into a squelchy mess of the type usually seen at British film premieres.
The cast, fully dressed for a change, slosh around until they are saturated, while Lear, usually roaring at the tempest, here seems beaten and defeated by it.
I’m not entirely sure if we’re watching a modern dress production or whether Munby has decided to set the play in that Shakespearean nether time that doesn’t seem to adhere to any reference points.
We see a laptop and the king delivering a speech with a microphone yet the costumes seem slightly dated.
Lear’s yobbish retinue resembles a bunch of young farmers in their tweeds, flat caps and wellies and behave like members of the infamous Bullingdon Club, throwing bread at the servants.
Phil Daniels unsettling in ’80s tank top and thick-rimmed glasses, as the king’s Fool, gives quick bursts on a ukulele but doesn’t deliver enough cynicism and insight to convince in the role.
Lear’s ambitious daughters are a treat. Dervla Kirwan, haughty and stylish as a Jackie O-style Goneril and Kirsty Bushell’s, sizzling cougar, Regan, look ready to scratch each other’s eyes out as they vie for power and the bed of Gloucester’s scheming bastard son, Edmund (Damien Molony).
Later, Regan positively purrs with sadistic pleasure as she encourages her husband, Cornwall, (Patrick Robinson) to rip out the eyes of Danny Webb’s Gloucester using a butcher’s hook.
Squishing the eye-balls on the floor, bits flying toward those in the front row, was a particularly gruesome flourish.
Gloucester’s other son, the innocent Edgar, gives Jonathan Bailey a meaty part though it’s hard to figure how no-one recognised him in his disguise as Tom of Bedlam when all that had really changed was his clothing.
This Lear is all about Ian McKellen and his multi-layered performance is outstanding, whether he is castigating his daughters for their betrayal of him or wandering abroad, his mind addled with dementia, handing out herbs and flowers.
Running at the Minerva until October 28.
Ian McKellen gives a masterclass in subtlety with his beautifully nuanced performance in the titular role of King Lear at Chichester.