With so many versions of King Lear around in the past couple of years – plus plays such as The Father, where parallels might be found – it would be easy to view any new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy as just another on a long conveyor belt.
The latest to enter “this great stage of fools” is the always dependable and ever watchable theatre veteran Michael Pennington (one of our finest Shakespeare performers) stirring up a storm as his tyrannical ruler, bursting with confidence and bravado, descends to madness and shattering self-realisation.
This take on the drama was originally going to be in the hands of Philip Franks, who had to pull out before rehearsals began due to ill health, and Max Webster took over the directorial reins of the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton, production. The result is often neither one thing nor the other and you are left wondering whose vision is being presented.
If the costumes and style are Edwardian, is this some kind of metaphor for a turn of the century, pre-war Britain being shaken out of its comfort zone? Are there more cutting modern references to dirty politics, family breakdowns, and the treatment of the elderly and/or dementia sufferers? As with the striking opening image of Cordelia firing a shotgun into the audience there is much boldly presented yet left unexplored.
With King Lear being a set A-level text this year there is a lot to be said for the relatively plainly staged production, concentrating on character and motivation – and the sheer joy of Shakespeare’s language in this 400th anniversary year of his death. Even those unfamiliar with the play would surely appreciate the clarity and ease of the storytelling.
Pennington’s experience and attention to detail is the stand-out delight of this solid production, running at just over three hours. Here is an actor of quality giving a Shakespeare masterclass, with a strong voice, and an absolute understanding of the text. His Lear is obstinate, playful, vain, humorous and entirely human, meaning his fall is more personal and never remote.
Unsurprisingly he is given excellent support by another seasoned pro, Pip Donaghy, as Lear’s loyal old friend Gloucester. It is surely no coincidence that they bear a striking resemblance to each other, as their parallel paths are drawn well – both affected by bad misjudgement when it comes to their children and both having the clearest sight and wisdom when debilitated.
Lear’s daughters are never easy to portray, with Goneril (Catherine Bailey) and Regan (Sally Scott) both jealous, treacherous and cruel, and Cordelia (Beth Cooke) virtuous and strong. It is to the trio’s credit that they bring new depths to the characters and their motives.
Gavin Fowler gives a powerful and carefully layered performance as Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate son, switching from mad beggar to devoted son to avenging champion expertly. Scott Karim isn’t quite so strong as Edmund, occasionally seeming more like a Blackadder villain than formidable schemer. Joshua Elliott gives a refreshing take on the Fool, much more impish than usual as he supports Lear with wise advice.
The creative team as a whole is worthy of praise for the overall look and feel of the production – and the famous storm scene must be one of the most frenzied and effective ever staged. In many ways it sums up the atmosphere of this generally pleasing production – full of sound and fury, sometimes losing its way in the haze slightly, yet sturdy and emotionally satisfying.
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