Tag Archives: King Lear

Lear and Now

KING LEAR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st September, 2016

 

Gregory Doran’s new production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy has an austere, almost Spartan feel.  The aesthetic is medieval but it’s as much Middle Eastern as it is Middle Ages, an interesting setting that could be Now, could be Then.  Here, the homeless and the dispossessed remind us of the refugees we see on the news on a daily basis (and also, extras on The Walking Dead!)

Lear makes a grand entrance, carried in on a chair in a glass box, paraded around like he’s an old relic.  In his opening scene, Antony Sher shows us the power of the king, albeit dwindling, as well as giving us glimpses of the mental deterioration that is to come.  It’s a commanding performance, in more ways than one, but Sher is at his most powerful in his quieter moments, in the details of his dementia, when he is recognisable and relatable as a human being in distress rather than a declaiming, despotic head of state.

Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams soon show their colours as evil daughters Goneril and Regan, while Natalie Simpson’s Cordelia makes a sweet impression that lasts – she has to; she disappears from the stage until after the interval.   Antony Byrne is a suitably heroic and noble Kent, disguising himself as a skinhead, and Graham Turner works hard to wring laughs from the Fool’s babblings, like a Dave Spikey in his underwear.

The RSC’s current golden boy Paapa Essiedu is deliciously wicked as the bastard Edmund, displaying a casual facility with the language and conveying a sense of being at home in the world of the play.  Surely a Richard III can’t be too far in his future.  Oliver Johnstone has a harder time of it as his brother Edgar.  Those Poor Tom mad scenes are not an easy act, but Johnstone throws himself into them with gusto and, by the time Edgar is reunited with his blinded father (the redoubtable David Troughton, marvellous as ever), we see how far he has come from his early foppishness.  The reunion between father and son is the most touching moment of the evening.

Niki Turner’s design gives us open landscape, punctuated by a lone, barren tree.   It’s almost Beckettian, as Lear and Poor Tom prattle and wait for Godot.  Music by Ilona Sekacz is largely percussive – key moments are underscored by drum rolls and crashes.

The only thing I question is Lear’s final scene, when he mourns the loss of Cordelia.  He rolls in on the back of a farmer’s cart for some reason, cradling her in his arms.  It makes for a striking Pietà, but I can’t help wondering where he got the cart and who is pushing it.   Oh, and in the blinding scene, which is literally eye-popping, the Perspex torture booth with its fluorescent lighting seems out of keeping with the rest, suddenly wrenching the action into the present – in which case, it works as an alienation effect, shocking us into considering the play’s currency.  Which, I guess, is fair enough.

A more than serviceable production, excellently played – but then, I never really enjoy Lear, as such – showing us a world where violence and madness reign.  In that respect, it’s the perfect play for 2016.

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Branching out: Oliver Johnstone as Edgar as Poor Tom. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

 

 

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Clear Lear

KING LEAR

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th May, 2016

 

Direct from Manchester’s Royal Exchange, this production of Lear jets into Birmingham.  It’s a satisfyingly traditional affair; the setting is the Dark Ages, the stage a stone circle.  Huge structures tower around it.  Signe Beckmann’s design is both evocative and versatile; the circular acting space serves as royal palace and blasted heath.  The costumes too convey the period.  We are in Game of Thrones territory and the characters behave badly accordingly.

Don Warrington makes a stately entrance as the eponymous monarch, in Jon Snow furs, but it’s soon apparent that he has already lost a marble or two, with his irrational game for the throne.  Whichever of his three daughters loves him best, will get the largest share of the kingdom.  It’s a lesson for all those with kids – don’t give them their inheritance while you’re still alive; they will only treat you abominably!  Warrington is powerful as the king losing his faculties and he is at his best, not when he is howling with grief, but in the quieter moments of clarity and self-awareness.  That really hits home.  Nowadays, if a playwright wants to write a piece about dementia, there is plenty of research material and you can probably get funding too; Shakespeare works purely from observation and I wonder who it was that he observed in order to depict the condition so accurately…

Philip Whitchurch is magnificent as the Earl of Gloucester – his journey is as devastating as Lear’s.  The blinding scene is a shocking slice of Grand Guignol, deliciously gruesome – director Michael Buffong should use that energy and ‘attack’ in other scenes; the pacing is somewhat pedestrian at times, making me long for judicious cuts – of the text, I mean, not the cast!

Fraser Ayres makes an enjoyable villain as the bastard Edmund and I also like Thomas Coombes’s rather flamboyant Oswald.  The Fool (Miltos Yerolemou) seems a little too sorrowful right from the off – he first appears as Matt Lucas in a Robert Smith wig – even his best japes are tinged with sadness.  He ends up like a bedraggled Miriam Margolyes – before his disappearance from the action.  Rakie Ayola and Debbie Korley are suitably nasty as evil bitches Goneril and Regan, while Norman Bowman’s Cornwall lends a Scottish lilt to the dialogue.  You wouldn’t want to endure the hospitality of any of them.

Alfred Enoch throws himself around as Edgar, disguised as ‘Poor Tom’, Wil Johnson’s Kent is suitably noble, and there is strong support from the likes of Sarah Quist and Sam Glen in ensemble parts.  Atmosphere is created in abundance by Johanna Town’s lighting and Tayo Akinbode’s sound design – distorted winds underscore turbulent thoughts.

On the whole, it’s an admirable production, a clear and straightforward handling of the tragedy that does not rely on gimmicks.  Excellently presented, it does however lack a certain something, a certain spark, to keep you gripped for its three-and-a-half hours.

Don Warrington (King Lear) Photo Jonathan Keenan (1)

Don Warrington (Photo: Jonathan Keenan)