Having seen two other, quite extraordinarily brilliant, large-scale Lears in the last 18 months, there is a temptation to compare – even though I know I shouldn’t.
Frank Langella was phenomenal in Chichester as a physically imposing, thunderous king. Simon Russell Beale at the National played a vain thug, delivering the vast majority of his lines in a booming rant.
Now we have veteran Shakespearean actor John McEnery in the role and every one of McEnery’s 50 years in the business is etched on his face (it’s hard to believe he’s actually six years younger than Langella) as this Lear shuffles, weak and doddery, around the tiny stage of the historic Rose Playhouse in London’s Bankside. There’s no doubt that he’s a king nearing the end of his life and he knows it.
McEnery’s performance is the most restrained King Lear I’ve seen and in a pared down production that has jettisoned some of the play’s most dramatic scenes.
There’s no stripping naked, no dramatic writhing in the rain shouting at a stormy sky. But given the restrictions of space it seems entirely appropriate.
Lear’s descent is one into exhaustion, rather than violent, raving insanity.
The Rose Playhouse is an incredible venue. It is an authentic 16th century theatre discovered in the foundations of an office building in the late 1980s. The play takes place on a narrow platform, actors almost on top of the 50-strong audience, but with occasional ventures into the cavernous space beyond.
Perhaps it’s time I got another eye test, but even with my specs on I found it difficult to follow what was happening upstage so the discovery of the outlawed Edgar in his hovel – by now clay-caked and nude – was a little lost.
Ludovic Hughes as Edgar gives the night’s most memorable performance. Body contorted like the Elephant Man, he dominates his scenes.
David Vaughan Knight as the banished Kent, disguised with commoner’s accent, beanie hat and Adidas trainers, is also impressive as he fights to earn back his former master’s favour.
His glorious barrage of insults to Oswald (“a knave, rascal, eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave” and so on) was wryly amusing.
Built in 1587, The Rose played host to early Marlowe and Shakespeare, but its success soon encouraged other theatres to be built on Bankside: the Swan in 1595 and the Globe in 1599. It was abandoned as a theatre by 1606.
A third of the playhouse is yet to be excavated, and funds are urgently in need for major works to refurbish and preserve the site for future generations.
Long productions are difficult – there’s currently not much of a foyer and the nearest toilets are down the road at the new Globe, so an interval is out of the question. It’s freezing, but blankets are generously provided, and it adds to the atmosphere of melancholy.
The original text has been condensed to a little over 90 minutes and it does make this version feel slightly rushed.
Samuel Clifford’s Fool – one of Shakespeare’s finest creations – loses some of his funniest lines. His relationship with Lear doesn’t get the stage time it should.
You don’t get the amusement and tension of wondering how much the Fool can push the King’s buttons before he goes too far. I rather liked the bit where he farted straight at me though.
There have been bitchier Gonerils and Regans but Claire Dyson and Orla Jackson as the cold, conniving sisters do a fine job.
Jackson’s giggles and look of utter joy as she gets a front-row seat to Gloucester’s disappointingly gore-free eye-plucking leaves you thinking that she’s going down the road of madness as fast as her dad.
The 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of a king who gave away his kingdom, set many centuries before Christ. There are versions of the same tale that are much older.
The cast’s costumes are a dressing-up box of different styles and eras, from medieval to modern, all in a gorgeous brown and sludge green palette. The eclecticism may just be an issue of budget, but I like to think it’s also a nod to the endurance of this story.
The Malachites’ King Lear runs at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, until April 30.