THEATRE REVIEW: King Lear starring Ian McKellen

WORTH A LOOK?: *****

WHERE: Minerva Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre

WHEN: 23/9, press night 29/9, booking to 28/10

This is the third King Lear we’ve seen in recent years and is actually McKellen’s second stab at the role, describing it in the programme as ‘unfinished business’.

  • Read on for reasons including which Oscar winner was in the audience for this 2nd preview

This is a modern-day Lear and, remarkably perhaps given how starry the cast is, it is a true ensemble effort which McKellen never dominates.

Instead we are left to marvel at Sinead Cusack’s Kent (her Oscar-winning husband Jeremy Irons is in the audience with us, willing her on) as she despairs of her treatment by the ailing king but her loyalty to him rarely wavers.

Jonathan Bailey (Broadchurch, Crashing, W1A) is one of our favourite TV stars and this is the first Shakespeare we’ve seen him in, although we narrowly missed his performance in Othello at the National a few years back.

We’re seven rows back in the intimate 283-seat Minerva Theatre space but swear we can see the tears well in his eyes even from this far back when his Edgar is reunited with his horrifically injured father.

There are flourishes from director Jonathan Munby: the eye-gouging scene is reimagined in an abattoir in true Pulp Fiction-fashion with Beggin’ You on the beatbox as Kirsty Bushell’s terrifyingly evil Regan goads her husband to do more harm.

We can’t remember ever seeing Dervla Kirwan in anything where she has been quite so good as she is as Goneril here, her passion thwarted by her husband being reignited by the younger and dastardly Edmund (the always reliable Damien Molony, who also starred with Bailey in Crashing).

In listing this production’s highlights, we’ve perhaps neglected the plot but it’s well known enough. This three-hour and 20-minute show (including interval) is certainly the easiest to follow of all those we’ve seen.

And the main draw? McKellen’s first stab at Lear since a Royal Shakespeare Company touring production in 2007 is thoughtfully layered: from infuriatingly poor judgement which ignites the drama to mental illness that brings it to its close.

Catch this brilliant production in Chichester if you can get a ticket. Otherwise, we’d love to see it transfer to the West End in a similarly sized venue where its intimacy means it’s a King Lear we struggle to imagine being bettered.

  • Picture by Manuel Harlan via Facebook courtesy Chichester Festival Theatre. Tickets
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