I love this play, and love the film adaptation, which stars Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation I went to see this young company play out a much-shortened version. For the most part, Im pleased to say, my worries were unfounded, as Ronald Harwoods incredibly funny and multi-layered script gets a pretty decent treatment.
On the surface this is the story of Norman, a witty but low-status theatrical dresser to Sir, based on the great actor manager Donald Wolfit. It takes place in the dressing room as Norman tries to dress and rouse this aging thesp, who is clearly ill, to one final performance of King Lear. Set during the Second World War, it paints a fascinating picture of what life was like then, as this motley troupe of actors is touring the country trying to cheer up the nation with Shakespeare. Hitler, remarks Sir, has made it very difficult for Shakespearean companies, with all the able bodied men being away, he is left with old men, cripples and nancy boys.
As Alex Owens Norman overhears this last remark pain flickers across his face Norman is gay, and in love with his master. One of the great themes of this piece and there are many) is unrequited love and Owens performance is terrific, flicking and flitting from campery to kindness to anger to real, heartfelt pain when he realises at the end that his years of service are unrecognised and unrewarded. He is the fool to Sirs Lear, and the last lines of this play are the fool's song from that great tragedy: When that I had and a little tiny wit, with a hey ho, the wind and the rain.
Owens performance aside, and a convincing cross-dressed Frankie Parham as stage manager Madge, the other acting is patchy, with Joshua Higgot struggling to find the gravitas and charisma of Sir (hes too young for the part by about forty years). Another theme of the play is bloody struggle and survival and we dont get here any real sense of the storm raging in Sirs mind as he tries to reconcile all the mistakes of his long life.
He is not aided by some strange directorial decisions from Charlotte Matthews. Sir doesnt don either the beard or the wig to play Lear, even though the first act is all about him preparing and putting on his make up for the role: Once I had to paint the lines in, now I simply exaggerate whats already there. If hes not going to use beard and wig (and I understand why that is logistically difficult|) then cut the lines where he says he is.
That said, I you havent seen this play before you could do worse than this abridged version, for Owens performance, Harwoods extraordinary words, and a real insight into the obsession actors have for their craft:
Barbarians, they bombed the Grand Theatre, Plymouth. I made my debut at the Grand Theatre Plymouth!
They werent to know, Sir