REVIEW: King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Ian McKellen plays the title role in Chichester Festival Theatres production of King Lear. Photo by Manuel Harlan

With Ian McKellen in the title role, King Lear was sold as the triumphant crescendo of the Festival Theatre’s summer season.

Tickets were snapped up by theatre fans excited to see one of our country’s acting giants taking on a role befitting his stature and experience.

Kirsty Bushell as Regan and Danny Webb as Gloucester in Chichester Festival Theatres production of King Lear. Photo by Manuel Harlan

And the moment McKellen stepped onstage, dripping in medals and backed by a floor-length portrait of himself, you knew you were in the presence of theatrical royalty.

His ear for the rhythms of Shakespeare was clear from the off as he wrapped his tongue around the text in a way which was more lyrical than his fellow actors.

And with that one-of-a-kind voice booming over a rainstorm which drenched the stage, McKellen played Lear’s rage with an intensity which would make a Balrog blush.

But I also found myself trying to decipher the odd word which got lost in his delivery.

Sinad Cusack as the Countess of Kent and Ian McKellen as Lear in Chichester Festival Theatres production of King Lear. Photo by Manuel Harlan

While it was undoubtedly McKellen’s name which helped sell the tickets, it takes more than one actor to make a play – and the cast fed off the energy in the room to match his performance.

Jonathan Bailey tore up the set – almost literally – with his physical portrayal of betrayed noble Edgar, and of Lear’s three daughters, my favourite was Regan, played with a deranged childishness by Kirsty Bushell.

She cackled with glee as her husband gouged out the eyes of their adversary, the unfortunate Earl of Gloucester, and stamped on his eyeball – a moment which sparked a wave of nauseated groans from the audience.

Water and flour caked the floor as we left during the interval, and it was a reminder to everyone how frantic and carnal this production had been.

Ian McKellen as Lear and Danny Webb as Gloucester in Chichester Festival Theatres production of King Lear. Photo by Manuel Harlan

I may have come to see Gandalf – but I stayed for the eyeball-popping.

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