“He hath always but slightly, known himself”
As I wrote when the full cast was first announced, “the world is hardly crying for more productions of King Lear but if you’re going to put it on, you might as well go balls out on some amazing casting”. And now that the time has come to trek over to Chichester Festival Theatre to catch Ian McKellen revisiting a role he has already been most renowned for playing, you’re left in awe once again at the luxuries casting director Anne McNulty has brought to bear in Jonathan Munby’s modern-dress and modern-spirited production.
Chief among them is Sinéad Cusack’s Kent. It’s a casting decision that deserves the emphasis for Chichester has long been a venue where female representation has struggled across the board and though it is still early days yet for Daniel Evans’ tenure here, any steps are welcome. Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia is another example and a powerful contrast too. Where Cusack brings all her experience to bear as a superbly nuanced Kent (whose disguising gains real resonance), Lawrance brings a freshness of spirit to her most compassionate reading of Lear’s youngest daughter.
Dervla Kirwan and the superlative Kirsty Bushell once again make me wish that the play were in fact called Goneril and Regan, such is the biting glee of the latter’s vindictiveness, set against the chilling froideur of the former who clearly sees herself entirely as a queen-in-waiting. Jonathan Bailey’s troubled Edgar and Damien Molony’s manipulative Edmund pique all sorts of interests and I was also impressed with Michael Matus’s vivid take on Oswald.
And at the heart of them all, and truly a part of an ensemble rather than its leading light, is McKellen’s breathtaking take on Lear. A role he has played before, a play he has acted in several times, there’s a clear sense of him relishing the (relative) intimacy of the Minerva as he inhabits every breath of the mental fragility afflicting his monarch. As carpet turns to chalk, crowns to knotted handkerchiefs, you feel every year of Lear’s (and McKellen’s) age as his disintegration leads to belated insight. Tremendous and tragic, thoughtful and thorough, a profoundly excellent piece of theatre.
Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 28th October