King Lear, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 7 & 8 October 2017
Not content with merely providing a bespoke showcase for Ian McKellen’s monumental talent, this production also created new meanings within a familiar story by casting Sinéad Cusack as a female Kent and enhancing that character’s role within the play.
The Chichester Lear came about because McKellen had been dissatisfied with the 2007 RSC production of King Lear. He had performed in large theatres that he found “uncongenially spacious” and had been obliged to shout lines that he felt would be better delivered “at times as conversation, in a theatre like the Minerva where intimacy conjoins audience and actor” (source: production programme).
His desire to play a smaller venue meant that fewer people were able to see the production and the scramble for tickets obliged the theatre to limit bookings to two per customer.
Sitting just a few feet away from McKellen’s Lear was a powerful experience, both in terms of the quality of the performance and for what it represented. McKellen has admitted that this was probably the last major Shakespeare role of his career, and the sense of an actor having his last hurrah suffused into the performance so that it underlay his character’s downward trajectory in the play.
When McKellen’s Lear told the younger actors playing his daughters that he was shaking his cares from him to confer them on “younger strengths”, the parallels with the last days of his Shakespeare career resonated somewhere deep in the background.
There is something to be said for quitting while you are ahead – and here McKellen was at the peak of his craft, particularly in his furious rages at Lear’s wayward daughters Goneril and Regan.
Shakespeare often manages to convey with precision the confused way in which people under stress jump from one thought to another, and McKellen was amazingly focussed in conveying Lear’s imprecision. The underlying paradox produced a remarkable effect in performance.
There was something almost inexpressibly marvellous about being simultaneously in the presence of the actor’s lucidity and the character’s confusion with each of these contradictory facets being felt at one and the same time with equal force, co-existing at precisely the same point in space and time but also entirely separate and distinct.
But the production was much more than a career-topping wish fulfilment vehicle for McKellen.
While the principal actor excelled in delivering a traditional Lear, from the point of view of generating new meanings within the story, the production’s most interesting aspect was its reworking and enhancement of Kent.
The director Jonathan Munby provided an object lesson in how changing the sex of a character can be combined with other reworkings of the text to create exciting new ideas.
In a significant alteration to the original, the production showed that Lear’s division of the kingdom was a surprise sprung on an unsuspecting court, who thought that Lear had gathered them together for the sole purpose of resolving the contest between the rival suitors for Cordelia’s hand in marriage.
Kent was shown to be Lear’s most trusted advisor, because only she was informed in advance of his decision. This indication of her elevated status at Lear’s court meant that her eventual revolt in the face of his unreasonableness was all the more striking, and her fall from favour all the more precipitate.
Once in exile she adopted a male disguise as the servant Caius, which enabled new meanings to be wrought from the existing text. She was also given a significantly different role in serving Lear in disguise than is commonly the case for male Kents.
The transformation of the character of Kent lay at the heart of the production’s opening sequences that reworked the original priorities of Lear’s assembly of his court.
At the very start of the performance, the lights went down on an empty stage. When they came on again, McKellen’s Lear stood at its centre resplendent in full ceremonial uniform. He held a document in his hand. He remained motionless, looking off towards the centre exit before departing through it.
The progress of the document became a key to understanding the narrative of the sequence.
The action continued with the text’s entries for Gloucester and the person referred to here as the Countess of Kent.
The document that Lear had been carrying during his fleeting appearance was now in Kent’s possession. She entered holding the unfolded document before her, reading the paper with an anxious furrowed brow, her focused scrutiny excluding every other object of attention.
She wandered stage right facing away from Gloucester as she exclaimed “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”
This entry could have been staged with both of them examining the document, but the staging instead emphasised that the knowledge contained in the document was solely accessible to Kent.
Gloucester’s next speech was divided between him and Kent to ensure that it was Kent who commented on the division of the kingdom in isolation and not Gloucester discussing it on equal terms of familiarity, so that it went:
It did always seem so to us:
But now, in the division of the kingdom…
…It appears not which of
the dukes he values most;
If Kent was the only person privy to the plan and she was facing away from Gloucester when she said “But now, in the division of the kingdom…” it was possible that this was an aside, a comment on the division that only she knew about, and that Gloucester’s lines simply ran on from each other so that he did not know about the plan. The general surprise at Lear’s announcement suggested that few knew about it.
With the introduction of Edmund over, Lear and the rest of the court entered to a fanfare of song in Latin. Desk and chairs were brought in with miniature French and Burgundian flags. These flags also hung fullsize at back of stage either side of Lear’s huge portrait.
The present business was clearly indicated to be the marrying off of Cordelia. The text was rearranged so that it dealt with France and Burgundy before anything else.
Thus Lear’s first words were:
The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn *project*,
And here are to be answer’d.
This was met murmurs of approval as this was the main purpose of the occasion, known in advance by all those present. The clue was in the phrase “long in our court” which indicated that the competitive wooing of Cordelia by the two princes had been a lengthy process with which everyone was familiar. This ceremony was designed to mark the conclusion of the deal.
Lear ordered Gloucester to “attend the lords of France and Burgundy”.
But then Lear dropped his big surprise:
Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
The word “meantime” went from being the first word in the original text’s expository speech to an indication that he was introducing supplementary matters pending the conclusion of the main event, as well as hinting that the purpose of this as yet unannounced project was “darker”.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom…
As soon as he had announced this division of the kingdom, the sisters, but mainly Goneril and Regan exclaimed a loud “What?!” in tones of confusion, puzzlement and anxiety.
Clearly Lear had given no prior warning of this plan to anyone other than Kent. The absence of the impending clarifying context meant that this initial bald statement was met with consternation and disbelief.
It was only when Lear went on to explain that this division would involve the conferment of his power “on younger strengths” that a commensurate wave of relief passed through his daughters as they realised there was some benefit in this for them.
Lear’s shock announcement also thus became another example of the impulsive and unpredictable behaviour that Regan and Goneril charged him with in their conversation at the end of the scene.
Kent resigned by handing in her badge of office, which she had worn on her lapel. This resignation had greater significance because she had been the only person entrusted with his plan.
Kent’s explanation for her disguised condition in 1.4 left out much of its beginning and its references to borrowing “other accents” and razing “likeness”. She was dressed in shabby clothes with a beanie hat to hide her hair as she was pretending to be a man. This had echoes of other Shakespeare characters like Rosalind who do similar. But she did change from her usual RP accent to Irish for this transformation and so did actually borrow other accents.
She became caught up in the jollity of Lear and his men returning from a hunt. The scene’s first question and answer between her and Lear took on new meaning given Kent’s chosen disguise.
Lear asked “What art thou?” to which Kent’s reply “A man, sir” went from being the original male Kent’s sarcastic statement of fact to this disguised female Kent’s hopeful pretence of the illusion she wished to convey.
A line was added in which Lear asked him/her his name. She replied “K..K.. Caius”.
In performance this sounded just like the stuttered delivery of her assumed name. But this initial hesitancy was more likely the suppression of her natural instinct to reply “Kent”, turning the opening consonant sound “K” into the start of her assumed name, the two being helpfully similar. Like many people trying to live under an assumed identity, she found it difficult to throw off the past.
Kent did not mention her age, possibly because that also has her state that she loves women. But in other respects she acquitted herself very plausibly as a combative man.
She tripped Oswald and held him by back of the head and threw him face down on the ground to teach him “differences”.
Kent was similarly pugnacious at the start of 2.2 when she challenged and scared away Oswald with a knife.
When held to account by Cornwall for her actions, she was placed inside a metal cage which was hoisted above the stage.
This provided an opportunity to make one of Lear’s line humorous, as he pointed at her and ordered her to “stay there”.
Reimagining Kent as a woman meant that when she made herself known to the Gentleman in 3.1, she did so by removing her beanie to reveal the full flow of her hair.
Once Kent was in a position to help the distressed Lear, the production’s reworking of the character made her more attentive and solicitous than is the case for most male Kents.
After the storm scene, Gloucester brought Lear, Kent, Edgar and the Fool into an outhouse, which was being used as an abattoir. Animal carcases hung from hooks besides cow and pig heads.
Kent lovingly attended to Lear and turned on an electric bar fire to warm him as he was laid on a camp bed. Her entreaty that Lear should “lie down and rest upon the cushions” was made to look like classic female nurturing.
Lear used the animal heads to represent his wayward daughters. A cow’s head stood in for Goneril while a pig’s head became Regan in his eccentric farmyard court of justice. As each of his daughters was found guilty in absentia, Lear took the offending animal head and threw it away, aided by all the others apart from Kent. She tried to intervene and stop the madness by taking the animal heads from them. But she failed.
Continuing the theme of Kent’s heightened concern for Lear’s welfare, she became one of the party that went searching for him at Dover and was one of the first to find him in 4.6.
Kent was given two of the lines spoken by a Gentleman: “You shall have anything” and “You are a royal one, and we obey you.”
Kent’s presence in 4.7 was therefore neatly explained by her presence in this previous scene.
Kent made herself known to Cordelia, but said she wanted to remain in disguise until a moment of her choosing. In this context, Cordelia’s “Then be’t so, my good lord” was a jocular reference to Kent’s assumed male identity.
In many productions, Cordelia remains near to Lear as he recovers. In this version, Kent was also close at his side. She looked on with a constant air of solicitude as father and daughter were reunited.
She held Lear as he got out of bed and tried to kneel to Cordelia. Once he was sitting up in bed with his legs hanging over the side, Kent put slippers on his feet to make him more comfortable.
Staged in this way, Kent almost became a second Cordelia.
The extent to which this production was as much about Kent’s dedication to Lear, as Lear’s own personal journey was shown in the final scene.
Kent sat behind Lear and eased him backwards as he expired, his “Look there…” fading gently into nothing.
The fact that Lear did not react when informed that this female Kent had been in disguise as a male Caius accentuated his declining grip on reality.
Taking her companionship with Lear to its logical extreme her veiled reference to undergoing an imminent journey because “my master calls me, I must not say no” could be seen as Kent identifying so closely with Lear that she had to follow him wherever he went, even into death.
The twin plot lines of Edgar’s shadowing of his father Gloucester and Kent’s shadowing of his master Lear came to resemble each other more closely than usual because of the enhancement of Kent’s role and the change of sex in the character.
A question arose as to the precise motivation for this Kent’s actions. If Edgar was motivated by bonds of kinship, was Kent motivated solely by a sense of duty, or was it something more personal? The production did not attempt to provide a ready-made answer to this question and the thought space thereby provided allowed the possible options to be considered at leisure.