King Lear at the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton

The, Claire Going, 6th April 2016

It is true to say that the ultimate success or failure of any performance of King Lear hangs precariously on the ability of one man: the one chosen to play the titular role.

In this new production of Lear, we are not disappointed with recent Olivier award nominee, Michael Pennington, who reprises his celebrated performance of the aged king. Having recently paced angrily about the “great stage of fools” at the Shakespeare Center in New York, Pennington’s Lear seems like a culmination of a lifetime’s work - a pinnacle of a wonderful career on the stage.

There is always a worry that a Lear is cast who would either be too young to carry infirmity convincingly, or too old to have enough stamina for the gruelling demands of the role, but Pennington is perfect for the part. He appears genuinely doddery, and yet is equipped with enough endurance and energy  to be able to carry it off with remarkable skill.

King Lear is the ultimate story of family tragedy and the destruction of a dynasty, brought about by the vanity of an old man who fails to discern the difference between the ugliness of counterfeit love from the gentle modesty of true loyalty, until it is too late.

Asking his three daughters to profess their love for him as he apportions out his kingdom to each of them, Lear elicits nothing but empty flattery from the self-serving Goneril and Regan, played by Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott, but his youngest daughter, Cordelia, played by Beth Cooke, cannot find the words to express her great love and loyalty to her father. His vanity becomes folly as he assumes her refusal to flatter him means she does not love him, and he disinherits her as a result.

Left with no kingdom, since he has passed it all on to Goneril and Regan, Lear only has his old friend Gloucester, played by Pip Donaghy, a Fool, two deceitful daughters and a pack of a hundred hangers-on for company. But when Goneril coldly demands that he must reduce his retinue to stay with her, and when he is turned out of doors on a stormy night by the callous Regan too, Lear descends into madness as he realises what he has done.

With a wind machine and sound and lighting effects creating havoc onstage, Webster’s storm is epic in its intensity. From the opening scene to the tragic climax, Max Webster’s production is packed full of sound and fury, but it also allows for more introspection than many productions before it. Pennington’s Lear, although suitably loud and raging when his anger swells, is generally a softer and quieter Lear who comes across as a naïve and foolish man, blinded to the true nature of is own daughters by his vain pride.

With an ensemble cast led by Pennington, there are some stand-out performances. Most notably, Joshua Elliott brings raw new talent to the portrayal of the Fool, a challenging part that he not only completely nails, but also manages to add a freshness to it that is rarely seen. Gavin Fowler, too, as Edgar, progresses from a carefree young man through feigned madness to mature protector with exceptional dexterity. And Bailey and Scott both degenerate horribly but perfectly towards the destructive jealousy that ultimately destroys them both. Unfortunately, however, Scott Karim’s portrayal of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, lacks a little in terms of credibility, but thankfully this is more than made up by the rest of the cast.

The production, however, truly belongs to Pennington, whose portrayal of the king who loses his mind is staggering in its mastery. He slips in and out of lucidity with alarming ease, and his quiet contemplations and momentary flashes of rage on the road to his ultimate downfall are exquisite in their execution. This truly is not a performance to be missed., Michael Davies, 6th April 2016

There has been something of a glut of high-profile Lears in recent years, with everyone from Ian McKellen to Simon Russell Beale tackling Shakespeare’s greatest tragic role for the more mature actor. For Michael Pennington, launching into a nationwide tour of this Northampton-made production, it’s actually his second go at the part - and what a fine rendition he offers. But more of that anon.

This version, directed by Max Webster, has the potential to feel old-fashioned: dressed in Edwardian costume with a company doubling many roles, it’s also visiting some distinguished old playhouses. The sense of traditional actor-managing decamping with his troupe to the next stop is never far away.

But Webster and his creative team seem to have taken this possible risk and turned it into a majestic success. Every sumptuous outfit looks beautiful; every doubled part is seized as a new opportunity for interesting characterisation; even the theatre itself becomes a dramatic backdrop to Adrian Lindord’s simple but brilliantly effective set, which either hems the claustrophobic court in with dark brick or opens out to a sweeping expanse of emptiness as a blasted heath.

Technically, the show is superbly supported throughout. Natasha Chivers turns lighting into an artform, exploiting every chance to add nuance to the play’s meaning with her subtle craft. Matthew Bugg’s soundscape is equally evocative - the only slight reservation coming with a heavily-scored fight sequence late in the second half.

On stage, the quality of the production is no less evident. In parts that can sometimes feel underdone or caricatured, Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott are steely and scheming as Lear’s two older daughters Goneril and Regan, while Adrian Irvine and Shane Attwooll make something meaty and substantive out of their respective husbands.

Gavin Fowler is touching and tortures as the wronged Edgar, Joshua Elliott an entertaining Fool who avoids the pitfalls of overplaying and instead provides a perfect counterpoint to the king’s descent into madness. Even tiny roles such as Daniel O’Keefe’s servant Oswald are given a breath of fresh air, played with real sincerity and effectiveness.

So, what of the mad old king? Well, from a workmanlike start, when his division of the kingdom between his three daughters feels a little perfunctory and artificial, Pennington draws a clear line through betrayal and familial disloyalty to complete disintegration, undercut by a stunning return to realisation in his final scene. His versatile voice is a joy to listen to, his range all-encompassing, and there are some truly heart-rending moments along the way.

It’s not the flashiest Lear you’ll see, and it’s so much the better for that. Instead, Pennington gives a well-defined, poignant rendition of this mighty role in a production that consistently relies on a clear and intelligible narrative. In the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death, it’s a welcome addition to the anniversary tributes.

Sunday Express, Michael Arditti, 17th April 2016

This year we are promised a royal flush of Lears. Timothy West, Antony Sher and no, it’s not a misprint) Glenda Jackson are all due to play the part.

First to put on and give up the crown is Michael Pennington.

King Lear’s popularity is understandable. With its themes of familial and social breakdown, madness and senility, violence and sadism, King Lear is the Shakespearean tragedy that speaks most clearly to the modern age. Max Webster’s production reveals both its potency and its pertinence.

This is the best kind of Shakespeare production: fresh, fast-paced, clearly spoken and splendidly acted, full of intriguing insights without any overweening, overarching “concept”. Only on occasion does it strike a false note, such as Regan’s nymphomania after her husband’s death.

Pennington, is an excellent Lear, clearly charting every stage of the king’s journey from spoilt autocrat to abject prisoner. He is impish when he makes his fatal request for his daughters’ love, as though aware of its absurdity, and imperious when his wishes are thwarted. He is at his best in the heartbreaking reunion with the blinded Gloucester, the excellent Pip Donaghy, whose physical resemblance to Lear underlines their parallel tragedies.

Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott are among the finest pairings of Goneril and Regan I have seen, their regal hauteur making them recognisably Lear’s daughters, with Regan’s baby a particularly inspired touch. Beth Cooke plays Cordelia as a surly teenager, a fascinating reading that makes more sense at the beginning than at the end.

Elsewhere, there are outstanding performances fro Gavin Fowler as an impassioned Edgar, Adrian Irvine as a noble Albany, Daniel O’Keefe as a punctilious Oswald and Joshua Elliott as a perspicacious Fool. The production sets a high benchmark for the forthcoming Lears.

The Bard of Tysoe

Plays To See, 27th April 2016, Mel Cooper

The new production of King Lear directed intelligently by Max Webster and highlighting a powerful performance by Michael Pennington is touring at the moment. It is a serious, excellent and completely compelling evening in the theatre. It is also a simple, straightforward reading of the play. Direct and clear in its approach, it misses none of the major themes or highlights of this great, complex play and the more general commentary of some of the characters about life, politics, mendacity and betrayal seem remarkably topical. I would perhaps have liked a bit more storminess during the storm itself; to see Lear descend a bit more deeply into his rage and madness at the climax. I was also not convinced by the time it is supposed to be set in, which seems to be a kind of timeless twentieth century; but that is merely a quibble. This production makes one consider all the elements of the play. And, at the centre, as there must be, is a superlative, well-thought-out, emotionally compelling performance by Michael Pennington as the King.

The audience the night I attended was hooked from the opening moments and completely attentive throughout. The pacing of this production is sure and swift; everything is presented in a straightforward manner, with consistently strong acting from every member of a small cast that is also doing some very clever doubling. For this team it is clear that the text is the thing - you are able to attend to everything that is being said, to all the arguments, to all the philosophies of the characters; and to all the poetry.

Michael Pennington is totally praiseworthy as the King. He conveys from the start the mixture of charm, arrogance and authoritarianism, the almost demented solipsism and the barely suppressed anger, and then follows Lear’s development step by step through madness to understanding. At the start, Lear is blind to his own flaws, to the flaws of his daughters, and wilfully unable to listen to any criticism or any other point of view; he is blind to where truth and real love reside. By the end he is a man whose torment has bought him some  humility and wisdom. The second half of the play is particularly strong, with the scenes between the blinded Gloucester and Lear, and then Lear and Cordelia, being especially affecting. The final sequence is memorable and totally gripping.

The subplot about Edmund, Edgar and Gloucester, the interconnection of the plots through the lascivious daughters Goneril and Regan, the tenderness of Cordelia, the sharpness of the Fool, the almost blind loyalty of Kent, all pass before you convincingly and quickly enough so that you do not question any of the plot devices. I want to praise Pip Donaghy as Gloucester, Gavin Fowler as Edgar and all three daughters (Catherine Bailey’s Goneril, Sally Scott’s Regan, Beth Cooke’s Cordelia) as well as Adrian Irvine’s Albany, Shakes Atwooll’s Cornwall and Daniel O’Keefe’s Oswald, all of which were memorable and all of which, along with Tom McGovern’s cheeky Kent and Joshua Elliott’s sweet-natured Fool, appear convincingly if briefly as part of the general ensemble in other roles.

This production is direct, perhaps less nuanced or deep in its interpretation than some, and it has bedded down well since originating at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. Michael Pennington and the cast revel in their journey through the course of this story. I recommend it strongly, especially as an introduction to the play.

The New Statesman, 6th May 2016, Mark Lawson

[...] The timetable of this Shakespeare crawl was dedicated by theatre schedules and my diary, but there is no play I would rather have seen on the actual death-day than King Lear. If Hamlet is the writer’s greatest narrative achievement, it is that other ply from his burst of post-1600 creativity that holds the finest moments psychologically and poetically, the word “nothing” tolling through the text, in varying contexts, like a funeral bell. The King Lear premiered at the Royal theatre in Northampton, in the lead-up to a UK tour that ends in Malvern in July, is located by its director, Max Webster, in an Edwardian England of frock coats worn at court and fights conducted with knives and pistols rather than swords.

Intelligent trimming emphasises the play as a parental tragedy, encompassing not just Lear and his three daughters but Gloucester and his two sons from either side of the blanket. Webster underscores this theme by subtly underlining that other characters are others and fathers as well: one of the daughters is visibly pregnant and another carries a swaddled infant on her shoulder.

When Michael Pennington’s Lear - spoken with immaculate clarity and charting with psychiatric precision the coming and going of the king’s mind - visits the Manchester Opera House at the turn of June, local Shakespeareans will be able to compare it with the portrayal by Don Warrington that is now at the Manchester Riyal Exchange in a co-production with Talawa Theatre Company and Birmingham Rep.

Each lead actor chooses one of the main alternative routes through Lear: Warrington a bullish tyrant who is suddenly humbled by stubbornness and dementia, Pennington a man whose physical and mental frailties are already apparent when he banishes Cordelia. It is a great tribute to actors and writer alike that, seeing these Lears within a few days of each other, I never experienced a moment of overfamiliarity. The Earl of Gloucester has always been a near-Lear for older character actors, and both Pip Donaghy in the Northampton version and Philip Whitchurch in the Manchester relish the cruelties and tenderness of the part […]

Return to King Lear Reviews