“King Lear by William Shakespeare,” so said the front cover of this production’s programme, and so it was. This was not an adaptation of King Lear, nor a reinterpretation of it, nor a radical re-imagination of it. There were no interludes or scene changes with modern music, and no shifting about of scenes from the order in which they would normally be expected to appear. There wasn’t even a ‘turn off your mobiles and pagers’ announcement, and not a single phone went off during the performance. This show achieved a rarity for me, in which before long I came out of a ‘press night reviewing’ mode of thought altogether and simply sat back and took in the evening’s proceedings, enjoying them thoroughly. I may not have drawn anything new from this production – this could even be advertised as ‘King Lear as you HAVE seen it before’ – but this was a scintillating evening nonetheless. And, after all, if a piece of theatre entertains and leaves the audience with a sense of satisfaction, why shouldn’t it deemed a success?
Michael Pennington makes for a palpably angry and frustrated King Lear; Pennington has much experience in the role, and it shows. Even in the madness of his Lear, there is a touch of the human person about him, evoking a degree of empathy. He is still King: he does not always need to shout, and he knows it, for his titular authority speaks loudly even if he, physically speaking, does not. Thank goodness that the audience is spared a near-constant hairdryer treatment. As Kent (Tom McGovern) puts it: “… anger hath a privilege.”
There is one hell of a slope on stage, far steeper than the rake in the stalls. The set is fairly sparse – I would exactly call it minimalistic, but it hardly looks like the living quarters of a monarch. But without much to push or pull on or off stage, the scene changes are very quick and smooth, such that the scene divisions are subtler than in most other productions, whether Shakespeare or not. The narrative flows from scene to scene, and thus from act to act, holding the audience’s attention throughout.
There are, I admit, little bits that purists may get irritated by – for instance, there’s a baby that ‘appears’ rather unexpectedly (not an actual one – the audience doesn’t suddenly go ‘Aww! and ‘Aah!’); its cameo role, strangely, adds little to the scene in which it appears. But I didn’t detect anything that was out of place beyond reason.
I note a cast of fourteen, and no understudies – it takes a single indisposition for a performance to be cancelled. I found Joshua Elliott’s Fool to be bouncy and energetic, a larger-than- life character: the device of a distracting role to act as comic relief from the infinitely more serious matters that take up the bulk of the play remains effective. Edgar (Gavin Fowler) goes through a most extraordinary character development, and Catherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan are credible antagonists.
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At a time when dementia in old age is affecting more and more people, directly and indirectly, this timeless look at how even the mighty and powerful can be brought down by an unsound mind, could not, despite little if any attempt to be contemporary, be more fitting and appropriate. This is a very credible and faithful rendering of Shakespeare’s text, demonstrating that in the plethora of Shakespeare-with- modifications shows in the limelight during #Shakespeare400, it is entirely possible to do a Bard play, and do it well, without the need to drag it into more contemporary times and ‘update’ it.
King Lear is deep, it’s sad and it’s tragic – but this production is riveting, and a shining example of excellent British theatre. And in case I hadn’t made this clear: what an outstanding performance from Michael Pennington in the lead role of Lear.
Review by Chris Omaweng
King Lear Overview
An ageing tyrant’s whimsical decision to divide his kingdom tears his family apart, sparks catastrophic civil war and destroys all that he has.
Driven from his home, King Lear endures madness and great suffering as he battles a great storm. Yet with madness he finds reason, after betrayal he discovers loyalty, and through his suffering a better world emerges.
King Lear – UK Tour – ATG Tickets
Four-time Olivier Award nominee Michael Pennington leads a cast of fourteen distinguished actors in Max Webster’s epic new interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. The production marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and is part of an extensive national tour
Age : 14+
Tue 10 – Sat 14 MAY 2016
Book Tickets Richmond Theatre
Wed 25 – Sat 28 MAY 2016
Book Tickets for Grand Opera House York
Tue 31 MAY – Sat 04 JUNE 2016
Book Tickets for Opera House Manchester