Time to add another King Lear to the collection. For this Made in Northampton production, which will tour to nine more theatres between now and July, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lady Lichfield, paying us a visit in a never-ending quest for culture and alcohol. She’d never seen King Lear on stage before, poor love. In previous years we’ve seen stage productions with McKellen (majestic), Postlethwaite (troubled) and Jacobi (petulant), all brilliant in their own way. And Mrs C in particular can’t forget the TV adaptation with Olivier as Lear, which had her blubbing uncontrollably when Cordelia died. I think she had hoped for the earlier adaptation where Cordelia marries Edgar and they all live happily ever after.
To add to that pantheon of greats, we can now include Michael Pennington, whom I must confess I had never seen before. His is a fantastic Lear, extremely believable as both the self-centred and quick to ire king, and as the devastated, broken man on the blasted heath. Delightful to watch and listen to throughout, with his superbly pitched diction, his gently understated quirky visual expressions, and his gradual decline into madness. He answers the perennial question of Is Lear Really Mad with an utterly honest, wide-eyed stare of dementia that certainly convinced me. Every inch a great performance.
Some Shakespeare productions can be amazingly inventive; some grow their strength from their essential traditionalism. You don’t get much in the way of traditional Shakespeare nowadays – it’s almost seen as a confession of unoriginality if you don’t place it in an anachronistic time-setting or have all the cast members the same sex. Max Webster’s production is pretty much in the classically traditional line; there is a nod to the 1920s/30s in the costumes, and Regan’s child sports a rather smart perambulator, but apart from that it is the timeless story of the powerful but vain old man who gives all to his daughters and gets less than nothing in return. It’s a good, solid production that tells its story with great clarity, pared back so that no gimmicks get in the way, although with a couple of surprising twists in a few of the scenes to keep you on your toes. However, I must say that I thought the use of music, when I noticed it, was rather heavy-handed; there’s a very Hollywood-style orchestral accompaniment to the big fight between Edgar and Edmund which completely destroyed its sense of tension. In any event, the fight itself was choreographed with a remarkable lack of realism; I briefly thought we’d been transported to a scene between Aladdin and Abanazar.
However, what you come away with is a satisfactorily rewarding production, with some very fine performances, and interesting, thought-provoking interpretations of some of the roles. For me, apart from Mr Pennington, the best performance of the night was from Joshua Elliott as the Fool. Primarily, he achieved the nigh-on impossibility of making the Fool funny. He made you laugh, yet still delivered his blistering observations on Lear that hit the spot with all the precision of a Tomahawk missile; frequently all in the same sentence. Rarely have I heard the lines such as all thy other titles thou hast given away told with such simple honesty. And, with some cunning direction, the “joint-stool” line worked perfectly.
That fine actor Pip Donaghy makes a perfect Gloucester, warmly trusting Edmund, heartily supporting the King, and allowing himself to be duped because of his own open nature. Gloucester features in two of the most challenging moments of the play, and I find myself looking forward to them just to see how they’ll deal with them. The first is where Cornwall blinds him – challenging due to its goriness (and this production doesn’t disappoint) – and the second is where he attempts to throw himself off a cliff that isn’t there; a truly pathetic moment (in the correct sense of the word). Again, that scene was beautifully portrayed, also thanks to the sincere and heartfelt portrayal of Edgar by Gavin Fowler.
Catherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan appear as sisters in unctuous sycophancy as they outdo each other in their hideous praise for their father, which of course all turns to dust once they have achieved power. They both absolutely look the part of butter-wouldn’t-melt, which adds to the shock of their true nature, with Miss Scott in particular resembling the evil twin of Lady Edith from Downton Abbey. Tom McGovern’s Kent is the mildest and, dare I say it, blandest of courtiers, but absolutely comes to life when pretending to be the sparky little Caius, horrendously chipper in his support for Lear. Among the more minor characters, I thought Daniel O’Keefe was excellent as the serviceable villain Oswald, hiding tight-lipped behind his status as Goneril’s steward, but physically cowardly when real life intercedes. There is a gasp moment when you really think Regan is going to seek to reward Oswald for information in a manner not entirely becoming a lady; but wet fish that he is, he doesn’t go there. Very nicely done.
Scott Karim gives us a very stylish portrayal of Edmund. I normally think of Edmund as full of bluster and barely disguised anger. However, this Edmund is much more introverted; quiet, sly, taking the audience into his confidence with subtle glee. He is a Uriah Heep of an Edmund, creating slippery plans for his own personal wealth and success, and with no thought to the consequence to his high-living brother or generous father. At first I was unsure of this portrayal, but I quickly saw how extremely well it works.
I am, however, less certain of the interpretation of Cordelia, by Beth Cooke. I always associate the character with purity – being the youngest, unmarried, daughter – and honesty, as she refuses to lie to her father about how much she loves him. This portrayal certainly reflects Cordelia’s honesty, as she adamantly refuses to back down to Lear’s hectoring behaviour. But purity? When, disinherited, she meets her two suitors, Burgundy and France, she’s all over Burgundy like a rash. That’s not the classic Cordelia I remember. Also, she opens the play by coming on stage and firing her shotgun at us. This appears to be a Cordelia with attitude. However, her mannered speech delivery remains fairly constant throughout the play – speaking with a slow, almost ponderous rhythm that doesn’t allow for much variety of tone or expression. She may have attitude, but she also seems to be resigned to a life of misery from the very start. I must confess, it didn’t quite work for me.
But the evening definitely belongs to Mr Pennington, who brings an accessibility and modernity to the role that makes you realise that any of your elderly relatives could easily become a Lear if the wind was in the wrong direction. A very enjoyable and rewarding evening.
P.S. Mrs C didn’t cry.