King Lear by William Shakespeare
Chichester Festival Theatre & Duke of York’s Theatre / directed by Jonathan Munby
Seen on September 26, 2018
Thumbs-up: An imperfect but thoroughly satisfying rendering of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, positively charmed and charged by Ian McKellen’s peculiar portrayal of Lear. McKellen’s Lear is staggeringly unstable, loose, and lost from the very beginning (in contrast to the gradually deteriorating Anthony Sher in the recent RSC production), and both his physicality and his speech are noticeably contorted by his waste land of a mind. Particularly until the storm scene, this depiction flirts with, and enjoys, the risk of unintelligibility, yet for those who know the work somewhat well, his defamiliarization of some of the most iconic lines in the play is a welcome surprise. And once he meets Luke Thompson’s Edgar on the heath, McKellen unlocks a new depth in the madness and decay of Lear, bringing it to a shattering crescendo by the end of the play.
In the production’s generally strong cast, the most fascinating performances belong to Danny Web (Gloucester), Sinéad Cusack (an impressively nuanced Kent), Kirsty Bushell (a delectably twisted and insatiable, even sadistic, Regan), and James Corrigan (a bad-boy Edmund). Paul Wills’ intelligent and evocative scenic design, including a well-exploited runway, and Oliver Fenwick’s sublime lighting greatly enrich the production’s modern-day aesthetic.
Thumbs-down: For most of this otherwise blazing production, the entire cast seems to be haunted by a curse of jarring, uneasy inflection. There is something about their patterns of speech that pushes the audience away, instead of welcoming and luring them into the immensely rich poetry of this play. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, nearly indistinguishable from the soundtrack of an action B-movie, is much too forceful and adrenaline-ridden to be in sync with this production. Finally, I would expect much more from Anita-Joy Uwajeh (as Cordelia) and Luke Thompson (as Edgar). And, of course, it would have been better if the play’s last moment, with Edgar’s haunting closing words, did not fall flat!