Just as you’d hope and expect, Ian McKellen is simply magnificent as Lear, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest but also his most baffling tragic hero.
Frank Langella, McKellen’s immediate predecessor as Lear in Chichester, remarked it was a role he never wanted to do because he never understood the man until he suddenly “got” him when he reached his 70s.
And maybe that’s genuinely the case: you really do need to be approaching his age to understand quite why, seemingly in a moment of tranquillity, he destroys absolutely everything and sends himself spiralling ever downwards into madness.
McKellen possibly doesn’t quite catch the regal demeanour but he’s astonishing on the slippery slope, delivering a performance you know you will remember for years. His facility and fluency with the language are quite remarkable, setting the tone for a production in which the lines are delivered with beauty and clarity. Lear’s madness is painful to watch, McKellen judging his performance to perfection.
Similarly outstanding is Kirsty Bushell as the evil Regan, lapsing into ghastly cruelty in a scene which is eye-poppingly gruesome. Bushell chillingly gives us mad delight amid the awfulness.
At the other end of the scale, Sinéad Cusack offers a masterclass in decency as the wronged Kent who remains loyal throughout. Danny Webb is a superb Gloucester.
Less successful perhaps is the decision to costume it all in modern dress, with an awful lot of strutting around in combat fatigues, heavy-duty guns to hand. Modern dress always seems to suggest a lack of confidence in the play itself, as if the director feels he has to tell us “Look, this is so relevant it really could be happening right now.” It couldn’t, at least not in this form – and it certainly doesn’t diminish the play to admit that it couldn’t.
Among the many, many things you never want to see on the set of King Lear is a vacuum cleaner. The megaphone comes a close second.
Bizarre too is acceding to McKellen’s wish not to be in a theatre “too uncongenially spacious.”
A sell-out in the Minerva is a rather hollow triumph when there is a theatre three or four times the size just a few yards away. Isn’t theatre about recognising theatrical gold and maximising its accessibility to all?
It’s difficult to believe we’d have lost terribly much by decamping, minus the hoover, to the main house.
But maybe that’s missing the point, just a little.
What we got was the Minerva and McKellen’s Lear will certainly go down as one of the greatest moments in the Minerva’s history.