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Theatre review: Ian McKellen put through the wringer in King Lear

Cling Lear: Ian McKellen is saturated in his suit as King Lear PICTURES: MANUEL HARLAN


King Lear

Minerva Theatre, Chichester ★★★★✩

IT HAS been ten years since Ian McKellen last played King Lear. Then the X-Men and Lord Of The Rings star stripped naked for the storm scene, baring every inch to the elements. This time he is dressed to the nines yet drenched to the skin, his saturated suit clinging to him like a shower curtain.

By coincidence it looks like Jonathan Munby’s thriller-paced and intimate production has the same modernising idea as the forthcoming BBC version of Shakespeare’s tragedy starring Anthony Hopkins. This stage version is also set in today’s Britain.

Lear’s right-hand-man Kent is a woman, played by Sinéad Cusack (pictured), and there is a strong impression of not just a man, but a country in the grip of madness. The thinking is clear: an unhinged leadership has created a political climate in which the scheming Edmund (Being Human’s Damien Molony) and the barbarity of Lear’s pitiless daughters (Dervla Kirwan and Kirsty Bushell) can thrive.

On the big screen McKellen’s Gandalf and Magneto were masters of the inscrutable close-up. But on this small stage, McKellen meticulously explores Lear’s delusions of grandeur.

Just one gripe. Even at his most vulnerable, McKellen is difficult to like. Where we should grieve with his Lear, we merely sympathise. But the transformation from monarch to shuffling wreck is a complete portrait of decline, not just of a man, but of a nation too.