This is the second time Michael Pennington has donned the crown of Lear and this time it’s a Lear clearly made for a 21st Century audience; cut down and pacey. Whilst this does make the story incredibly clear it does feel a little as if we are on a rollercoaster to Lear’s madness, descending quickly into childlike dementia and pitiful madness.
this would be a great choice to take someone who hasn’t seen King Lear before
The time period of which the production is set in is, at first very unclear. In the opening scene characters appeared to be in 1940’s clothes but then Regan and Goneril turned up wearing 1930’s evening gowns, Edmund appeared in skinny jeans and when Cordelia leads her army she appeared in modern day combats. It would appear that this Lear is not connected with any singular time period, instead conveying the timelessness of the play’s themes. Though this seemed justified to the attending audience, personally it was quite distracting and, at least at first, rather confusing.
Beth Cooke’s portrayal of Cordelia was quite difficult to warm towards or sympathise with. I couldn't help wondering in this jovial, almost party scene, when her Father was carving up his kingdom for his daughters, why she didn't just join in the game and tell her Father she loved him? There certainly didn't feel like there would be any jeopardy at this point for not answering him and her strong sense of truth and almost puritanical refusal to answer him felt a little out of place, as did his sudden change to anger and hatred. This is a soldier-like Cordelia, hard and unrelenting, not willing to bow to her Father’s childish demands, determined not to crack and to get her own way – in some ways as bloody-minded as her Father with just as much to learn on her journey through the play.
Scott Karim is convincing as Edmund, the villain in black. Through his direct interaction with the audience his portray of Edmund feels almost like a Victorian melodrama archetypal villain. This prince of darkness is definitely a gentleman; an oily and seductive one at that and we the audience are as seduced as Regan and Goneril. Gavin Fowler as his half brother Edgar is his opposite; the kind hero who is too trusting. But he makes a credible journey from spoilt, rich, drunk public schoolboy to ‘Poor Tom’, managing to convince everyone around him he is a mad, homeless beggar before finally finding his inner strength to take on his brother by returning as a stronger, braver and more streetwise adversary.
It’s choice of style for the more visual bloodiness of the play seems a little inconsistent, although could be seen as encouraging audience to engage their willing suspension of disbelief. Gloucester’s eye being plucked out was a gory spectacle, making members of the audience audibly gasp throughout the event, but when Cornwall was mortally stabbed, there was no blood at all, not even a struggle or a fight.
Strong, clear storytelling but lacking characters that really seem fully formed, this would be a great choice to take someone who hasn’t seen King Lear before but with #Shakespeare400 running all year, if you’ve seen Lear already, I’m sure you can find something more exciting to celebrate the Bard’s death with.