YorkShakes 2015 Review: King Lear

‘A cornerstone of the York International Shakespeare Festival’, Northern Broadsides present an alternative (although not wholly satisfying) take on Shakespeare’s great King Lear. reviews

Image: ©Nobby Clark

Image: ©Nobby Clark

Venue: TFTV Mainstage
★★★☆☆

I love King Lear, it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, so maybe I was expecting too much from this Northern Broadsides production, a cornerstone of the York International Shakespeare Festival. I went into the performance full of excitement, and came out feeling that I’d seen another performance of this play by the company. There were some really nice moments within the play, but I thought that some of these redeeming qualities were almost immediately spoiled by how complacent the company seemed at times.

I know that Lear is one of the ‘big roles’ in Shakespeare and that it must be exhausting to perform the role night after night, but at times Barrie Rutter sounded as he were offering a cup of tea and custard cream to the storm that was pouring down on his face. His removal of the four howls to mourn the death of his favourite daughter, Cordelia, did nothing to intensify his portrayal of the character and I thought that at times Lear could have appeared more childlike and vulnerable as he pleaded with his daughters for resources or forgiveness. Maybe if this had been put in, I would have thought his performance too melodramatic or didn’t suit Lear’s age. This role is so hard to get right and you can never please anyone, but I wanted to see a more visceral title character.

Edmund’s ‘Stand up for bastards’ speech towards the beginning of the play (one of my favourite speeches) was also off-kilter and did little to show the characters deviance at this point of the play, leaving Edmund appearing as a bit of a simpleton. That being said, there were some really surprising performances that caught my eye. Jos Vantyler eked every ounce out of Oswald’s character, ramping up the camp to provide some much needed comic relief and Nicola Sanderson and Andy Cryer worked well to create a really strong Regan/Cornwall dynamic. It was interesting to see Sanderson assert Regan as the stronger of the two sisters, making me re-evaluate my view of Goneril as the more forceful of the siblings. Jack Wilkinson’s Poor Tom was also well played and showed some of the pent up emotion that I wanted to see from the rest of the cast at times.

The design of the piece was good, though I thought that Jonathan Miller (director) could have made more of the chess board arrangement on the stage in terms of the blocking of the piece; it’s too strong a motif to have on stage without using it fully but the lighting was designed particularly well, helping to really amplify the tension in the tearing of Gloucester’s eyes and the Edmund/Edgar battle at the end of the piece.

As I write this, I’m certain that others will disagree with me. The Guardian gave this production 5 stars and called this production ‘revelatory’. Maybe I was expecting too much, but if anything Northern Broadsides’ production left me questioning whether I’d enjoyed reading the play as much as I thought I had.

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