It’s a busy year for King Lear. Last night two productions opened – Don Warrington assumed the mantle of put-upon royal father in Manchester while Shakespeare classicist Michael Pennington took on the role, for only the second time in his lengthy career, at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate.
And if that wasn’t enough Antony Sher dons the crown for the Royal Shakespeare Company this autumn. The anniversary of The Bard’s death has caused a national revival of his work of such intensity that there’s not a theatre company worth their salt that’s not coming up with a new version of Hamlet or reviving other popular titles.
Max Webster’s brooding production of King Lear at the Royal & Derngate is deeply atmospheric with lighting designer, Natasha Chivers, creating vast shadows about the Royal stage that enhance the play’s dark heart.
The conservative use of lights plunges the entire drama into a gloomy half-light but I rather liked it. It provides the perfect ambience for Lear’s villain, Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, played with assured confidence by relative newcomer Scott Karim.
Edmund appears centre stage and Karim’s dark, swarthy looks take on a demonic appearance, emphasised by the low light. Is he chewing gum? He stands, hands either casually thrust into his pockets or twisting and making fists in a quietly intimidating manner.
Most of the ambitious Edmund’s lines are as monologues to the audience as we share his black thoughts about taking revenge for his illegitimacy. Karim gives a thrilling turn throughout as we see him plot to ruin his father and brother and connive to make a play for the throne.
Webster hasn’t gone for flashy gimmicks or oddball interpretations of King Lear but, has instead, assembled a respected and experienced cast to stage an engrossing story, well performed, with a compelling and masterly Pennington at its heart.
The production sets the story in one of those theatrically timeless eras which means that the Royal & Derngate’s dressing up box has been emptied. The costumes initially suggest Edwardian but then the women’s frocks seem 1940s-ish while the men cherry-pick from throughout the 20th century.
At one point the French army, in their game waistcoats, looks as though they’re all out for a day’s duck shooting, while Lear himself models a full-length Barbour.
No-one can doubt Pennington’s authority in the leading role – he is one of this country’s leading Shakespearean actors – and here he gives us a weak and fallible Lear, easily misled by two duplicitous daughters; a cruel and vain Lear who spits out bile at his favourite daughter, Cordelia’s disrespect; and a Lear who graphically descends into a debilitating dementia.
He handles the storm scene with aplomb (though the effects were rather lack-lustre. I had hoped for a spot or two of rain on stage) but, of the many faces of the king, Pennington saves his best until last. He is pitiful as a broken and unhinged old man and truly demented, wailing like a banshee, at the loss of Cordelia.
Pip Donaghy has the dubious pleasure of being cast as Gloucester and enduring the infamous eye-plucking scene. He demonstrates what a hard man he is by hardly uttering a sound (I’m pretty sure I’d be screaming the theatre down) yet Shakespeare then gives the horrifically injured man lines to say, which is implausible in the extreme.
Shane Attwooll, as a hot-tempered Cornwall, carries out the grisly deed with sadistic relish. While one “eye” came out easily, the second squirted blood on stage before bouncing onto the floor. It’s just what you need before ordering a Bloody Mary in the interval.
I have some sympathy for young male actors today. Since the furore over TV’s Poldark, Aiden Turner, stripping off and sending ratings rocketing, someone has decreed that we all want to see our young male actors looking..well.. buff.
They must all hone their bodies as well as their brains if they want to become top flight actors. Stripped off – though modestly wearing a pair of shorts (this isn’t the West End you know) – a rather ripped Gavin Fowler looks as though he would be more at home wielding a sword in Game of Thrones than playing a lunatic in King Lear.
Instead, he mud covered and nearly-undressed, to play Gloucester’s wronged son Edgar and he gives an engaging performance.
Lear’s dishonest daughters Goneril (the flame-haired Catherine Bailey, looking very Kate Hepburn, I thought,) and Sally Scott, as Regan, are exceptionally watchable whether they are plotting to discredit their father or fighting over possession of Edmund. Beth Cooke, as the sainted Cordelia, top and tails the 180-minute play, with little to do in the middle.
King Lear plays at the Royal & Derngate until April 23.
2016 Tour Dates
April 25-30, Oxford Playhouse May 3-7, Theatre Royal, Brighton May 9-14, Richmond Theatre May 23-28, Grand Opera House, York May 31-June 4, Manchester Opera House June 6-11, Theatre Royal, Bath June 13-18, Hall for Cornwall, Truro June 20-25, Cambridge Arts Theatre June 27-Jyly 2, Malvern Theatre.
Dark and brooding, Max Webster’s shadowy King Lear sees Shakespearean actor Michael Pennington give a masterly performance as a wronged king and duped father.