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King Lear (Susan Elkin reviews)

Rarely have I felt so elatedly moved and shell shocked at the end of a performance as I did when Jonathan Mumby’s modern dress King Lear finally reached its devastating conclusion. Reflecting on the play and the glitteringly good work in this top-notch production kept me fizzing and wide awake for the whole of the late, long drive home afterwards.

We’re in Britain (mentioned 32 times in the play) and it’s highlighted by flags, soldiers and a rather magnificent, patriotic song (by Ben and Max Ringham) for the state scene at the beginning backed by a massive Stalin-esque photograph of the King. This is a totalitarian Britain, after all and Mumby is keen to highlight topical resonances. They were there in early Jacobean Britain as it struggled to unite in a shaky post-reformation era and they’re there now as we wrestle with what Fergal Keane in his programme essay calls “raging hurricanes, the dysfunctional Trump presidency, and the nuclear stand-off in the Pacific.”

Ian McKellen’s Lear is ill from the moment he first appears with his uncertain, slightly tottery gait. He is in pain and his speech is spat out as if in recovery from a small stroke. It is impeccably observed. So is the capricious mood switching and anger often stressed by the shock and fear shown by everyone around him. And that makes the descent into the storm – a lot of water on the red carpeted circular playing space designed by Paul Wills – even more shocking. The water spreads like an ugly, ever changing amoeba-like map and soon McKellen and his bespectacled, banjo playing Fool (Phil Daniels – good) are ankle deep in it. The wet red floor then does a great job as a butchery with carcases hanging up where the blinding of Gloucester (Danny Webb – moving) is staged at the end of the long, emotionally exhausting first half ensuring that you really do need an interval drink.

The Minerva is a small space. This is McKellen’s fourth outing in the play and his second take on the title role. This, though, is a very different style of production from the large-scale one he did for the RSC in 2007 which toured worldwide often playing in very large venues. The intimacy of the Minerva enhances the horror of the family breakdown. Every word is clear, every line is coherent and the play often sounds as if it had been written last week. The wider family of the kingdom is breaking down too as, suddenly there is no leadership. And on an individual level McKellen gives one of the most insightful portrayals of dementia – “madness” – that I have ever seen, one minute incisive and the next dependent. You feel both pity and despair as you watch him self destructing. The “wheel of fire” reconciliation scene with Cordelia (Tamara Lawrance, fresh faced and full of righteous naivety and then mature and loving) takes place in a hospital where briefly he has some hope for the future. It stuns. So does his final scene with Cordelia’s body. Standing ovations are overdone and therefore devalued by theatre audiences these days in my view, but McKellen fully deserves one (and got it on Press Night) for this performance.

Amongst the strong supporting cast Sinead Cussack is splendid as Countess of Kent. She gets exactly the right perceptiveness for this worried, decent woman who then disguises herself as an Irishman in a beany during the long exile. Kirsty Bushell is fabulous as Regan, too. She teeters about giggling manically and is clearly sexually aroused at the blinding of Gloucester. It’s unforgettably nasty and a fine piece of acting. Genius touch, too, to present Lear’s “an hundred knights” as a sort of rowdy on-site Bullingdon club.

I’d like to say “Don’t miss it.” Although tickets were limited throughout the run to two per purchase it is now fully sold out – returns only. Bad luck, folks.

First published by Sardines –

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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