King Lear at Richmond Theatre

Mail on Line, 13th May 2016, Patrick Marmion

Actors always speak of King Lear as the Everest of theatrical roles. I have, however, yet to see a really great Lear. Perhaps it’s because the power of the play lies less in the role itself than in the story. The great strength of Michael Pennington’s performance in this soundly-crafted new production is, therefore, less about his doing a star turn and more about him proving a terrific team player.

Pennington certainly gives a high-powered performance as the cranky and capricious monarch, abandoning himself to the flamboyant self-pity after banishing one daughter and falling out with the other two. His Lear cuts a truculent but wily figure and he captures all the pathos, comedy and exasperation that runs through old age. It’s a hugely intelligent performance that consorts with the full range of Lear’s demons: he whispers, declaims and booms, but nuances every line with pride, fear, tenderness, rage or confusion.

But most impressive is the way Pennington coordinates Max Webster’s three-hour, but nonetheless brisk production. Adrian Linford’s design evokes an Edwardian age gone to seed with weeds sprouting from gloomy masonry. It’s not a startling interpretation and there are no great discoveries, but Shakespeare’s language is made clear and accessible. With Pennington’s steely focus, the play becomes a proper epic, marching through a turbulent landscape.

Pennington inspires equally well-wrought performances from the rest of a strong cast. Scott Karim is a dark and lanky deceiver as the trouble-making Edmund. Maybe he could do with more of the rock star sex appeal needed to drive Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott, as Lear’s manipulative, high-maintenance daughters, crazy with desire. And maybe Pip Donaghy is a little too cheerfully resilient as Lear’s loyal friend Gloucester. But Tom McGovern helps keep the show well anchored with a spiky, sardonic and tersely-telling Kent.

Not everyone will warn to Joshua Elliott’s as Lear’s beloved Fool who is a barrel-shaped queen, singing his lines with a squeeze box. For me, though, he made a nice, melancholy, loose-screw counterpoint to Pennington’s head-long self-destruction.

The result isn’t world shaking, but gives a good, robust account of a play that owes less to its awkward protagonist than to his terrible journey.

A Younger Theatre, 11th May 2016, Bethany Dickinson

King Lear is a timeless Shakespearean tragedy. Presented by Royal & Derngate Northampton at the Richmond Theatre, we watch the King split his kingdom to his three daughters. Much ensues as he bases his decision of the split on their love for him. His most beloved Cordelia insists that she cannot partake in his fancies, and so she receives nothing. Fickle and strong-willed, we watch the King go mad at his plight, as his daughters usurp him and turn on each other, as Edmund says, “The younger rises when the old doth fall.” As with most Shakespearean tragedies, almost everyone dies in the end, and this story is not without heart-wrenching and gory deaths.

Michael Pennington heads the production as the titular role, he is an age-old Shakespearean actor. Although at points his vocal strength reaches breaking point, he breaks our hearts as he pulls Cordelia out of the wings with a rope around her neck. He has utterly essential emotional and comedic control for the role.

Both Gloucester’s (Pip Donaghy) legitimate son Edgar, played by Gavin Fowler, and illegitimate son Edmund played by Scott Karim are extremely strong lead actors. Fowler is genuine and heartfelt whilst caring after his blind father, and we are gunning for him from the get-go. Unfortunately the terrible two, Goneril (Catherine Bailey) and Regan (Sally Scott) fail to hold their own compared. Their words aren’t harsh enough, and the only person who manages to cut it in this respect is Karim. During his numerous insights directed towards the audience, we feel the swagger and confidence of his actions, even if his speech is a little contrived at times. Shane Attwool (playing Cornwall) even adds a much needed to the scene during the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes, as it seems Scott can’t hold her own.

The design of the production is well done, with a vague 1940’s feel to the costumes, and a harsh setting for the stage. The sound (Matthew Bugg) and lighting (Natasha Chivers) is mostly strong, adding to the well designed set and feel of the show. The extreme rake of the stage makes it hard for the actors, as well as the close proximity of the space,which feels like it wasn’t taken into account when directed. Heightened moments are stunted, with all movement feeling small in an already small space. Which makes the stage fighting look very basic and extremely contrived. The action hops from peak to trough, instead of raising in a natural way.

As I watch King Lear, I begin to appreciate how gorgeous the story is, and for once the emotional side of the tragedy stuck out to me more than the extremes of the deaths. The contrast of the poor and rich, the mad and the supposedly sane, show Shakespeare for the playwright he truly was; both a spectator and commentator. What is the use of reviving the old if not to reevaluate the values we see in new theatre? King Lear is a prime example of the more we watch and revive Shakespeare, the more value we uncover from it.

London Theatre, 10th May 2016, Chris Omaweng

King Lear b William Shakespeare,” so said the cover of this production’s programme, and so it was. This was not an adaptation of King Lear, not a reinterpretation of it, nor a radical re-interpretation of it. There were no interludes or scene changes with modern music, and no shifting about of scenes from the order in they would normally be expected to appear. There wasn’t even a “turn off you mobiles and pagers” announcement, and not a single phone went off during the performance. This show achieved a rarity for me, in which before long I came out of a “press night reviewing” mode of thought altogether and simply sat back and took in the evening’s proceedings, enjoying them thoroughly. I may not have drawn anything new from this production - this could even be advertised as “King Lear as you HAVE seen it before”  but this was a scintillating evening nonetheless. And, after all, is a piece of theatre entertains and leaves the audience with a sense of satisfaction, why shouldn’t it be deemed a success?

Michael Pennington makes for a palpably angry and frustrated King Lear; Pennington had much experience in this role and it shows. Even in the madness of his Lear, there is a touch of the human person about him, evoking a degree of empathy. He is still King: he does not always need to shout , and he knows it, for his titular authority speaks loudly even if he, physically speaking, does not. Thank goodness that the audience is speared a near-constant hairdryer treatment. As Kent (Tom McGovern) puts it: “… anger hath a privilege.”

There is one hell of a slope on the stage, far steeper than the rake in the stalls. The set is fairly sparse - I would exactly call it minimalistic, but it hardly looks like the living quarters of a monarch. But without much to push or pull on or off stage, the scene changes are very quick and smooth, such that the scene divisions are subtler than in most other productions, whether Shakespeare or not. The narrative flows from scene to scene, and thus from act to act, holding the audience’s attention throughout.

There are, I admit, little bits that purists may get irritated by - for instance, there’s a baby that ‘appears’ rather unexpectedly (not an actual one - the audience doesn’t suddenly go “Aww!”and “Aah!!”); Its cameo role, strangely, adds little to the scene in which it appears. But I didn’t detect anything that was out of place beyond reason.

I note a cast of fourteen, and no understudies - it takes a single indisposition for a performance to be cancelled. I found Joshua Elliott’s Fool to be bouncy and energetic, a larger-than-life character; the device of a distracting role to act as comic relief from the infinitely more serious matters that take up the bulk of the play remains effective.. Edgar (Gavin Fowler) goes through a most extraordinary character development, and Catherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan are credible antagonists.

At a time when dementia in old age is affecting more and more people, directly and indirectly, this timeless look at how even the mighty and powerful can be brought down by an unsound mind, could not, despite little if any attempt to be contemporary, be more fitting and appropriate. This is a very credible and faithful rendering of Shakespeare’s text, demonstrating that in the plethora of Shakespeare-with-modifications shows in the limelight during #Shakespeare400, it is entirely possible to do a Bard play, and do it well, without the need to drag it into more contemporary times and ‘update’ it.

King Lear is deep, it’s sad and it’s tragic - but this production is riveting, and a shining example of excellent British theatre. And in case I hadn’t made this clear: what an outstanding performance from Michael Pennington in the lead role of Lear

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