It is brave to reimagine Shakespeare, in particular arguably his greatest tragedy but Lear by John Scott Dance is a deeply moving, subtle and superbly performed interpretation of Shakespeare’s play through physical theatre, dance, speech and fragments of text focusing in modern terms onhow we treat old age and dementia.

A wonderful tribute to Shakespeare, and a re-imagining with shockingly modern relevance.

Nothing can top Shakespeare's language, of course, and this production skilfully weaves in fragments; Shakespeare’s words or phrases are pasted on the back wall, ‘That way madness lies’, ‘spit fire, spout rain’ or even an enigmatic ‘Ha?’ so that the tragic outcome is foreshadowed even if you don’t know the play.

Opening with Lear played by Valda Setterfield, in her 80s, her arms sway in gentle movements as if performing callisthenics but also suggesting courtly gestures. On her head a paper crown, tellingly symbolising her empty power and approaching infirmity. The role-reversal is strikingly forceful when her ‘daughters’ appear. The older two performed in energetic, powerful choreography as they intimidate their frail mother is somehow more frightening for being muscular males; Mufutau Yusuf as Goneril with over-exaggerated praise in a deep fawning voice, Ryan O’Neill as Regan, higher-pitched, more mealy-mouthed and cruel. The youngest ‘daughter’, Cordelia is an adored spoilt son played by Kevin Coquelard with dyed-blonde hair and delightfully quirky dance moves, ostentatiously different from the other two, refusing to give false praise.

At this point Valda turns to him and mutters: ‘Kevin, have you read the play?’ The French performer milks this by spiralling into a non-Shakespearean speech about how he just wants to drink wine and eat cheese before flouncing off stage to an Edith Piaf song. This hilarious dropping out and into the role gives a lightness of touch and humour to the show making the tragedy that follows more shocking.

Goneril and Regan’s treatment of their mother is a piercing critique of ours today; too busy to visit, exasperated because she’s lost her glasses again, ‘are the stairs too much for you?’ and frighteningly accelerates. The raging storm and encroaching madness of Lear in the heath scene is powerfully created with howling sound effects and paper, the torn words, the torn map of the kingdom, scattered and swirl. And again, it is paper (the map of the kingdom) that Cordelia wraps round Lear in what was once her throne, now a wheelchair.

Valda’s portrayal of the onset of Lear’s ‘madness’ is heartrendingly pitiful, recognisable to anyone who is familiar with dementia patients; not knowing where or who she is or recognising others, with flashes of her old self, both entranced by her beloved Cordelia but concerned he will hurt himself when his attempt to amuse her get out of control. The last thing to go with dementia is the ability to remember songs and this is beautifully shown as Lear and Cordelia sing Hey, Ho, The Wind And The Rain...

‘Let me not go mad’ is a cry that echoes down the centuries and this show is both a wonderful tribute to Shakespeare, and a re-imagining with shockingly modern relevance.

Reviews by Stephanie Green

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The Blurb

John Scott’s Lear is a deeply personal and riveting interpretation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. King Lear is portrayed by New York legendary dancer/actor Valda Setterfield, 82, who has worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Woody Allen, David Gordon, Pick Up Company and as a soloist for Merce Cunningham. Setterfield gives a profoundly moving performance that explores the unraveling of a universe, parental love, fear of death, personal transformation and enlightenment. Toppling the hierarchy, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia are portrayed by three outstanding male dancers: Kevin Coquelard, Ryan O’Neill and Mufutau Yusuf. Lear was commissioned by Kilkenny Arts Festival 2014.