Venue: St. Olave’s Church, Marygate
Drama Soc tackled Shakespeare. And not just any Shakespeare, but a big one, maybe even the big one: King Lear. But this wasn’t King Lear as we know it. Instead we got Lear, and rather than depicting the great King’s spiral into decrepitude, we got the Queen.
Reimagined and reinvigorated? A portrayal that unearthed hidden nuances and let the words sing a different tune? No, not especially. This was still very much Lear in familiar territory and the gender-reversal didn’t add any additional, eye-opening facets to the general interpretation of the play. I’m by no means a Shakespeare purist; I saw a fantastic all-woman production of Julius Caesar and know that in the right hands, his work’s ripe for being torn apart and cleverly re-pieced back together. But in this instance, I just felt the decision to go for a female Lear, as well as a female Edgar, stood on the precipice of gratuitous territory.
That’s not to say that our Lear, Amelia Hamilton, didn’t put on a damn good show. She thundered and shivered, captivating her court and the audience. But when it came to Lear’s ferocity, fear at her slowly ebbing power and capability, and the capricious behaviour this brought out, I just didn’t see it. I didn’t feel this Lear was vicious enough to so unceremoniously disown Cordelia, to curse General and Regan so poisonously. The play as a whole lacked consistent flow, which brings me to my real bugbear.
It was great to be in St Olave’s Church (perhaps it’s because I’m prematurely ageing at an alarming rate, but I’m sucker for a nice bit of ecclesiastical architecture), yet this simply was not a good space for performing a play. Church pews are not designed with theatre audiences in mind. I know this is a painfully obvious point and there’s nothing that can be done, however ingenious the director, but there was a lot of on-stage action that I simply could not see. And to compound this, the acoustics were pretty dire, so rather too many of the lines ended up echoey, muffled and distorted. So, when you can neither see nor hear what’s going on, it’s tricky to get a real flavour of the play. I saw flashes of great acting. Jacob Seldon as Albany gradually came into his own and commanded real authority by the end. Oliver Basford as Oswald, the smarmy servant, eked out some cracking comedic turns, as did Leo Jarvis, who balanced the funny moments in his portrayal of Edmund with rapacious, bitter ambition. The archetypal evil sisters Goneril and Regan, played by Ellie Schneiders and Rebecca Storey respectively, switched pleasingly from gleeful and calculating, to vicious and hateful.
The play’s close was undeniably striking, but as noted, consistency was not sustained. The aspects that make King Lear, which is at its best is a heart-wrenchingly tragic play, woven through with fearsome, cosmic themes, well, these weren’t especially evident. The usual depiction of two ageing, myopic fathers, Gloucester and Lear, in the play creates a strange symmetry, as the characters reflect each others foibles and insights (or lack thereof). This is lost when Lear is cast as a woman. And Edgar is a hard enough character to play, let alone when he becomes a she. Robyn Aitchison did her best with this weird part (I never understood why Edgar never reveals his/her true identity to poor, blind Gloucester), but we lost that sense of queasy, fraternal rivalry between Edgar and Edmund, which so strikingly reflects that of Lear’s daughters. Nuances that elevate the play were instead diluted.
The lighting was brilliant, however, and the choice of performing in the church worked with regards to conjuring a sense of regal occasion. But the storm… Of course, you need suitably tempestuous sound-effects to get the feel of the storm, that ultimate bit of pathetic fallacy for Lear’s addled mind. But what with the dodgy acoustics, it just wasn’t possible to hear the words themselves. Their power was desiccated, the meaning and impact compromised. Perhaps it’ll all be better in the Drama Barn, when you can both see and hear the ferocity and really revel the acting. I appreciate the fact that Drama Soc were collaborating with the York International Shakespeare Festival, and needed to expand their thespy tendrils into a town venue, but unfortunately, the potential wasn’t quite realised.
Perhaps the ubiquity of Shakespeare leads people to make assumptions, but grappling with it really isn’t a simple task. What with the logistical constraints of performing in a church, alongside the challenges of pulling off a meaty bit of Shakespeare during exam season, Drama Soc put on a good show. But I must admit, the evening was tinged with an overwhelming sense of deja-vu. I felt like I was back in primary school, watching the familiar nativity play in a draughty church, and desperately wanting to see the action, but all the big kids in front were blocking my view.