Review: King Lear

With York’s first International Shakespeare Festival looming, reviews Northern Broadsides’ fittingly unpolished and dark performance of King Lear

Image: Nobby Clark

Image: Nobby Clark

Venue: The Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Charles Lamb wrote that “The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted… the play is beyond all art: it is too hard and stony… Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on stage.” This pronouncement was yet to see Northern Broadsides production of King Lear which is nationally touring this Spring, and will even feature in York’s very own International Shakespeare festival in May.

I attended its opening night at the Quarry Theatre in the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the fifth venue on the tour. The production focused heavily on the pain and grief of age, both that of approaching death and of childish behaviour and actions. Barrie Rutter, also the company’s Artistic director, took on the principle role as Lear. I felt he took great influence from Ian McKellen in his depiction of the King’s spiral into madness, there was an overly babyish quality to him, as his golden trousers hung around his ankles while he waddled around the stage calling to his “philosopher” who sat hunched on the floor painted chalk white, with a branch headdress and bloody cut arms. And yet, the play still was able to shine a fierce beam on the sorrows of strife that generational conflict can bring.

The company’s trademark “classic texts in northern accents” did appear to transform parts of the text, however it did leave certain moments feeling a little too overacted. Edmund in particular, with his greasy slicked back hair and cowboy walk was trying too hard to be the villain. Nevertheless, no audience member could help but be repulsed by him. The everyday tone evoked a soap opera quality that was both engaging and an astute reflection of the family conflicts that drive the action of the play. The characters become recognisable as a result. We saw Lear’s tale of regal power struggles, old age folly and foolery leap into the present, on the cold checkerboard stage. By making every situation crystal clear, the audience plainly understood the plot and its details without long-winded explanations, which allowed the play to run on with greater pace.

This production’s aim was to “bring forward justly unrecognised aspects of the drama.” It achieved this in the consistent reference to God; the characters pointed and addressed the heavens when they were seeking advice or cursing the fate that has befallen them. The impression it gave was that they were actually talking to us, the audience, cursing us for the misdeeds that were being performed. Within this I recognised that the relationship between Edgar and Edmund had an intriguing similarity to the conflict between Jesus and the Devil.

The production perfectly captures the jealous rivalry of the sisters as they bicker over the insincere Edmund.  The conversational quality of the actor’s performances opened up a whole new way of looking at Shakespeare’s tragedy through straightforward and, at various moments, rough-hewn performances. The performance dialogue is strewn with contemporary references that actively make the audience laugh – a gibe to the current political election campaigns was particularly well received. Although credit must be given to Rutter’s performance, which was refreshingly human, for me the real star was Fool. Though his time on stage was limited, his coy actions and amusing one liners just epitomised the company’s technique and captured the productions focus on the grief of old age.

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