U.K. Theater Review: Ian McKellen in ‘King Lear’

Ian McKellen is ‘every inch a king’ as he returns to 'King Lear' in a Britain that seems to have itself gone mad.

King Lear review Ian McKellen
Manuel Harlan

Something’s rotten in the state of, er, Britain. A country known for its unerring stability and sense looks, to all the world, like it’s lost its marbles of late, and director Jonathan Munby’s production of “King Lear,” which gives Ian McKellen a second shot at the role, frames the play as an epic state-of-the-nation drama. From the very start, it’s clear Lear’s Britain is ours, and its establishment order is clearly crumbling to bits, plunging the country into all out civil war. It’s a keen political reading, a staged alarm call, but Lear’s a balancing act and in emphasizing the national interest, Munby forgets the family drama. Without it, the play simply doesn’t detonate as it should.

McKellen’s last Lear, for the Royal Shakespeare Company a decade ago, was an old-fashioned monarch straight out of a fairytale. A well-tailored tyrant, he railed at his daughters and at his courtiers indiscriminately. This one lives in the real world; our world. The members of his court stride on in ceremonial dress, ready for a royal pronouncement of sorts – civil servants with clipboards (Sinead Cusack’s gender-switched Kent) and army men in uniform (Danny Webb’s Gloucester), princes in epaulets and princesses in tiaras. As the national anthem blasts out, this is the British establishment in full voice, belting out Latin lyrics as easily as it breathes.

Munby lets us see it anew, largely by suggesting that it’s succumbed to madness. McKellen’s Lear isn’t just a fine study of royalty – his every joke gets a laugh and every statement’s taken seriously – it’s a delicate portrayal of dementia too. The two crisscross neatly, so that his absolute power slowly loses its bearings. He’s clearly indisposed from the start. Unsteady on his feet, McKellen drops an inappropriate laugh into his podium speech before – unexpectedly – dividing his kingdom between his daughters, all caught on the hoof. That act not only scuppers the succession line, it splits up a nation abruptly and arbitrarily – a point McKellen stresses by slicing up a map with gold-handled scissors. It’s a violent act by a reckless king and, in a nation that just changed its status on a whim at the behest of establishment figures, a mad, scissor-happy king carving up the country is an altogether arresting sight.

The British establishment, Munby implies, is not as solid as it might seem. He shows us the people beneath – loose bow ties and unbuttoned uniforms, and a king losing his faculties. McKellen defines the disease in a way that’s never simply linear. He swings chairs in stubborn rages, then drops his train of thought, before rallying to rationality by, say, recognizing his daughter. The constant is humor, whether he’s chuckling at the storm or keeping his old-fashioned cockney Fool (Phil Daniels) close. That the Fool’s not funny – part George Formby, part Ken Dodd – says as much about the British aristocracy as it does about Lear’s childish tastes.

He is a symbol of a country coming unstuck, and the power vacuum he leaves triggers a national crisis that teeters towards full-blown civil war. Paul Wills’ design variously suggests the country is at once plush red carpet soiled and sodden, a cracked white cliff of Dover and, most worryingly, a slaughterhouse.

At times, the production strays close to satire, touching the wry tone of Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III” with Lear’s daughters cutting familiar figures. Dervla Kirwan’s coiffed Goneril has the pursed level-headedness of a young Elizabeth II, while Kirsty Bushell makes Regan a monstrous Kate Middleton. Tamara Lawrence’s Cordelia, meanwhile, could have stepped straight out of a Testino shoot, her slinky white satin gown pure Princess Di.

There’s fun in all this – rebellious mischief – and Munby lightly lampoons the upper echelons of British society. If the public sees an orderly line of succession, everyone waiting their turn, Munby shows us an establishment jostling for position and power. The princesses play a pincer move on their father, reasoning him into a corner to pare back his private army. They toy with him like matadors bleeding a bull before a goring. In his white tie and tails, Damien Moloney’s Edmund is like an Oxbridge student scheming his way to success.

As the corrupt take control, honest souls take flight, and Munby stresses how many people go into hiding. With Cordelia in exile, Cusack’s Kent disguises herself as a man – not entirely convincingly – and Jonathan Bailey’s ordinary Edgar conceals his sanity by feigning madness. The rest get butchered, and — played against Ben and Max Ringham’s pulsing score — a pared-back edit of the play becomes a political thriller, pacy and urgent.

The danger is that tension overrides subtler emotions, and in focusing on the nation, Munby forgets the families therein. He asks us to see monarchs and heirs, rebels and exiles, before fathers and their children. In that, “King Lear” loses a lot of its sting. Its edge of taboo and treachery don’t register as keenly, and the force of love at play falls out. By pushing the plot too hard, Munby loses some of the patterns. He couches motives that need to be personal in purely political terms. The war in “King Lear” wraps itself up pretty quickly, and unless we’re left to count the human cost, the play lets us off the hook.

U.K. Theater Review: Ian McKellen in ‘King Lear’
Minerva Theatre, Chichester; 238 seats; £48 ($64) top. Opened, reviewed Sept. 29, 2017. Running time: 3 HOURS, 20 MIN.

A Chichester Festival Theatre production of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare

Directed by Jonathan Munby; Design, Paul Wills; lighting, Oliver Fenwick; music and sound, Ben and Max ringham; movement, Lucy Cullingford; fight direction, Kate Waters

Jonathan Bailey, Kirsty Bushell, Richard Clews, Sinead Cusack, Phil Daniels, John Hastings, Dervla Kirwan, Tamara Lawrence, Dominic Mafham, Jake Mann, Michael Matus, Ian McKellen, Damien Molony, Caleb Roberts, Patrick Robinson, Danny Webb