"I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms" – Oscar Wilde

Monday, 18 November 2013

Review: King Lear (Minerva Theatre, Chichester)

Another year, another Lear. Many consider King Lear to be the Hamlet for older actors, which is probably why it gets revived so frequently. Recent productions have seen Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and David Haig play Shakespeare’s tragic king, while in January Simon Russell Beale will take on the role at the National. This production sees Frank Langella, the American theatre giant (literally, he stands at a mighty 6 ft 4 in), make his Chichester debut in the charming Minerva Theatre.

In spite of the regular revivals, I have never actually seen King Lear before. However, the plot felt very familiar. King Lear is an aging monarch, who decides to give over power to the daughter that loves him the most. A web of lies and deceit is then spun, people are banished, others are stabbed and attacked while Lear’s world crumbles around him. However, it is not a predictable affair and is one of the perfect examples of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Langella is a man with enormous stage presence. You can’t draw your eyes away when he’s on stage from the moment he strides into the theatre. His magnificent, booming voice fills the small auditorium easily, even more so than the noises of thunder during the storm scene. It is a stellar performance, and your heart breaks for Lear as he loses his power and descends into madness, especially in the haunting final last scene.

It would be easy for much of the supporting cast to get lost in the midst of such a bravura performance, but two in particular are able to stand out. Max Bennett (excellent in the recent revival of Relatively Speaking) here shows off his dramatic skills in addition to his comic chops. He is charming, and clearing relishes addressing the audience directly. Harry Melling, fast becoming one of our stellar young actors, plays Lear’s beloved Fool. He is quick to make a joke, but also has an underlying panic and alertness that makes him fascinating to watch.

Isabella Laughland, who has shown such promise in previous roles, falls slightly short as Cordelia and is not quite convincing. As Regan and Goneril , Lauren O’Neill and Catherine McCormack are decent enough, but I feel they could have been a bit more evil and menacing. Chu Omambala as Albany was most underwhelming; meaning the play’s closing lines lacked some impact. Denis Conway as Gloucester is also very good, and is another one that breaks your heart as the world comes crashing down.

Peter Mumford’s lighting is very good indeed. Robert Innes Hopkins’ set is  very simple, basically a bare stage with many entrances for the actors to run on and off of – which suits the production’s fast-paced sprightliness and swift scene changes. A highlight was the storm scene – the stage is pulled apart before the rain pours down on the lamenting Langella.

While not without some flaws, this is a cracking production. It could easily have just been a star vehicle for Langella. Although he is clearly the star here, the fact that he is ably supported by a good cast and solid creative team mean this show is about more than just him, it is an ensemble piece with a brilliant central performance. It was well worth the trek to Chichester, which is definitely saying something.

‘King Lear’ runs at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 30 November. In 2014 it will transfer to New York, running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 7 January to 9 February.

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