King Lear

Shakespeare’s darkest play has been brought to life with passion, clarity and attention to detail by director Ian Brown

Venue: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Run: 22 September 2011 – 22 October 2011
Written By: William Shakespeare
Directed By: Ian Brown
Rating: *****

The mood of Ian Brown’s magnificent King Lear is set even before the show begins. Down the centre of the stage lies a stream of crimson carpet, pierced by a sword, leading to a gold throne. But the thing that strikes us is that the stage platform has literally been toppled forward at an angle so the floor, walls and door are askew, as if the very fabric of Lear’s world is already turning against him.

Though the costumes and set have a modern feel, the production is set in a time when a whole kingdom relied on the King who ruled it. And Lear’s power is about to come under siege by forces beyond his control. Right from the word go, as the characters stand facing the full moon which hangs above, we know “unnatural” forces are at work – as Gloucester notes: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us”.

This full moon is reflected in the lunacy of Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund (given a creepy, smug personality by James Garnon). The unhinged villain tears Gloucester and Edgar apart, has a fling with both Regan (Hedydd Dylan) and Goneril (Neve McIntosh), and snatches away the only shred of hope Lear has left without batting an eyelid. However, the poisonous stares of Goneril, and Regan’s enjoyment of Gloucester’s blinding (a gut-wrenching scene), are what really makes one’s hairs stand on end. With their matching scarlet dresses, the conniving pair seem to have been soaked in blood.

For all its gothic imagery, at the heart of this play lies human fragility. Tim Pigott-Smith’s Lear is sensitive and remorseful: during his transformation into madman, very disturbing. At times, the hollow cries he emits are more animal than human. When Lear is brought forth in a wheelchair, unable to recognise his daughter, we could almost be watching an ordinary man with Alzheimer’s disease. It is deeply moving, particularly when the Duke of Albany sighs: “He knows not what he says: and vain it is that we present us to him”. Unlike Gloucester, Lear still has the use of his eyes, yet he has been blinded by grief. An excellent performance by Piggott-Smith.

There were also great performances from Richard O’Callaghan as the lovable Fool, Sam Crane as a heroic Edgar and Iain Batchelor as Oswald, Goneril’s loathsome servant. The stamina of all these actors is unbelievable: they run around, climb ladders, switch accents (Edgar in particular, who is almost always in disguise) and a whole host of other things. Hats off to the production team for some impressively choreographed fights and resourceful use of strobe lighting and metallic crashes to create the storm.

As the play closes, with Cordelia’s and Lear’s bodies lying still across each other, the full moon above turns a familiar blood red. Shakespeare’s darkest play has been brought to life with passion, clarity and attention to detail by Ian Brown – anyone with an interest in drama must see this production.

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