Peckham Asylum – asylum, in this case, being used in its older sense of “sanctuary” – is a truly remarkable building. Almost 200 years old, the chapel was almost completely destroyed by an incendiary device during World War II although, amazingly, the beautiful stained glass windows remained intact. The roof was rebuilt after the war and the building stabilised, but despite these rudimentary renovations and the addition of portable heaters it is, on a dark February night, very, very cold. Staff thoughtfully provided blankets for members of the audience on the door, a kind but ominous gesture, but no such comforts were available to the brave actors who cavorted around the cavernous stone space, often barely clothed, their breath misting in the freezing air. A small orchestra groaned away mournfully in a corner, their numb fingers somehow managing to conjure music of haunting beauty.
It is an appropriate setting for King Lear, a play whose dark, hopeless misery is already enough to chill one to the marrow. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s plays there is no neat, cheery resolution at the end; the chaos set in motion by Lear when he signs over his kingdom to his three daughters is all-consuming, the grim conclusion inevitable and his descent into madness unstoppable. This is a play which begins in sadness, passes through a series of horrors, and ends in gut-wrenching torment. Even the Fool, usually a respite from the gloom, is depressed. And no wonder; Lear has disowned the one daughter who truly loves him – the other two are plotting patricide; he has banished his loyal courtier Kent, obliging him to creep back in the typical impenetrable Shakespearean disguise of a different hat; the noble house of Gloucester is tearing itself apart and everyone appears to be going insane. Oh, and there is a charming scene where somebody has their eyes ripped out and thrown across the room (they bounce, eyeballs, apparently). King Lear is not a play you would go to see if you wanted to cheer yourself up.
Thankfully, the production itself is a delight. Director Benjamin Blyth makes imaginative use of the huge space available; people appear from behind crumbling walls, sidle shiftily behind and through the audience and seize handy chairs to use as various props. Flickering candlelight casts eerie, unsettling shadows on the walls, and the original score, composed by Deborah Pritchard, underlines the grim action perfectly. The atmosphere during the storm scene was particularly menacing, with flashing lighting, wildly waving pennants and rumbling drums and cello used to great effect.
It would be easy for the actors to be somewhat eclipsed by such an unusual and striking venue, but happily they were more than a match for their surroundings. All were excellent, but particular mention must be made of Nick Finegan as a particularly unsavoury and scary Edmond, and of David Knight as Kent, who underwent a superb transformation from noble-but-bland courtier to London geezer in an instant. Claire Dyson and Phoebe Mcbee were a suitably gruesome twosome as the unfilial Goneril and Regan respectively. Mcbee’s treachery seemed even more poignant, as she is actually the daughter of John McEnery who was playing Lear. Ludovic Hughes also deserves high praise – not only for his impressive range of accents, but also for his sheer courage in dancing about the freezing flagstones clad in nothing but a filthy loincloth and a few scabs. It made me feel even colder just watching him, as I burrowed into my blanket.
The one jarring note, oddly, was the star himself; the eminent John McEnery in his role as Lear. Not in his acting which was, unsurprisingly, superlative; his Lear alternately mewled and roared, postured and cringed, saw and was blind, hated and loved. It was a heart-wrenching and very real portrayal of a fond, foolish and disintegrating old man. However, the heart-breaking truth is that he can no longer remember his lines. His first couple of requests for a prompt produced some awkward squirming in the audience, but when he reappeared holding his script, the horrible truth dawned. In the programme, the director draws a parallel between a once eminent actor now unable to remember his lines and a once all-powerful King no longer able to command either his kingdom or himself. In Blyth’s own words, “the line between John and Lear has become increasingly blurred.” This may be true, but unfortunately the constant interruptions and pauses made it difficult to focus on either the beauty or the meaning of the words, and distracted from the undeniable power and energy of his performance. More prosaically, it also prolonged an already lengthy and wordy play, which when one is shivering beneath a thin blanket and cannot feel one’s feet is no small consideration.
Despite this, it was impossible to leave the asylum without feeling slightly overawed: by the venue; by the horror of the play; by the sheer quality and vitality of the performances. The Malachites’ production of King Lear cannot exactly be described as enjoyable, but it is certainly brilliant. Now that I have defrosted, I am sure that it is an experience which will linger in my thoughts for quite some time.
Review by Genni Trickett
The aged King Lear has had a long and peaceful reign, but he has no living male heir. In dividing the kingdom among his three daughters Lear sets the stage for his own destruction, as Ancient Britain ripped apart by its rulers.
King Lear Trailer
In perhaps his darkest turn, Shakespeare’s imagination has transformed this ancient folk tale into one of the most gruesome and harrowing tragedies ever written as families divide, order descends into chaos and the state slides into war.
Starring BAFTA-NOMINATED actor and modern Shakespeare-great JOHN MCENERY (National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe) in the title role, The Malachites are proud to announce their latest production – Shakespeare’s monumental pagan tragedy KING LEAR.
The Malachites have assembled a superb cast including returning favourites Stephen Connery-Brown (Shylock) as Gloucester, Nick Finegan (Richard II) as Edmund, and John’s own daughter Phoebe Beacham as Regan. This production also features a stunning new live score from one of Britain’s most exciting young composers, Deborah Pritchard (BBC Radio 3; National Gallery; ESO; Worcester College, Oxford).
Led by one of London’s brightest up-and-coming theatre directors, Benjamin Blyth (Christ’s College, Cambridge; RADA) unaccommodated man is set on the rack as Shakespeare’s epic tragedy is brought to life in a spectacular new site-specific production suitable for Shakespeare lovers and theatre newcomers alike, featuring a phenomenal performance from one of the greatest living Shakespearean actors.
7PM – 9.30PM (Including a 15 minute interval)
February 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27, 28 March 2, 3 & 4
The Asylum, Caroline Gardens Chapel
Peckham, London, SE15 2SQ
TICKETS: £15 (£9 Concessions) available from 0871 220 0260 and on the door (cash only)
Friday 20th February 2015