King Lear at the Arts Theatre Cambridge

Anne at the Theatre, 20th June 2016

This Max Webster Royal & Derngate production of Shakespeare’s tragedy emphasises its bleakness. Designer Adrian Linford presents us with a bare stage, backed by a greying wall, a window-piece which barely illuminates the world outside and is as much a restriction as an egress.

The play begins with Cordelia (Beth Cooke), waiting her moment to shine. A chandelier is lowered, a throne materialises – and the court bustles in. The costumes are timeless ones, which means that guns and duelling pistols supplement knives and short swords. You either accept this blurring, or you don’t. It’s up to you.

Dominating the play is Michael Pennington, not yielding an inch as either the absolute monarch, or the abdicated one – feeling himself for the first time not to be in command of anyone. Or anything. He times Lear’s decay into dementia so subtly that one is scarcely conscious of when irritation with the king’s arbitrary ways melts into compassion for the man.

All the other characters, given a central performance of this strength, are satellites. Tom McGovern’s no-nonsense Kent metamorphoses well from the blunt senior army officer into the equally outspoken but infinitely more relaxed man of the people. Joshua Elliott’s Fool is an intriguing mixture of acute wisdom and apparently pointless nonsense. He’s the dark side of the glass to Gavin Fowler’s poor Tom as the fugitive Edgar desperately seeks to claw a future from his bleak prospects.

If Cooke’s Cordelia comes across as a spirited as well as principled princess, Catherine Bailey’s domineering Goneril an Sally Scott’s deceptively uxorious and motherly Regan offer contrasting essays in unpleasant ambition. Shane Attwooll’s Cornwall at first seems to have the edge on Adrian Irvine’s more contained Albany, but this is shown to be yet another layer in the interlocking web of deception.

Scott Karim’s Edmund is a plausible villain, though his initial soliloquy seemed to portray a cavalier approach to the verse. As his father the Earl of Gloucester, Pip Donaghy gives a somewhat muted performance, so that his terrible torture by Cornwall for his temerity in scouring his king is a piece of stagecraft rather than something to horrify us.

Local Secrets, 23rd June 2016, Mike Levy

Actors often say that their careers are defined by the King Lear they play. Michael Pennington, one of the country’s finest actors has now tackled the Shakespearean role so his Lear is bound to be good, but is it great? One can judge as the acclaimed production has arrived, delivering a mixed bag version with a lot going for it. Be warned though, it is a very long evening, ending after 11pm.

The Bard’s searing tragedy at the Cambridge Arts Theatre for a week’s run challenges the old saw that with age comes wisdom. Lear’s Fool, a fellow old fool, opines that the aged monarch has grown old before he has grown wise.

Pennington, shaggy white bearded, and properly the right age for his role, bestrides the stage with huge commanding presence. There was a touch of actorly grandeur, a feeling that he was ‘giving his Lear’ to a grateful audience. One of the drawbacks of the play is that directors and actors often treat it as a colossal cultural icon, a work of unparalleled genius and things can get a bit too precious.

Happily, Pennington and his large ensemble managed to avoid this over-respectful approach to what can be a difficult-to-follow series of plots. Pennington, from the opening lines, is am old man already crushed by weary age and a life of flattery. There is a croak in the voice, a grandfatherly growl and an impetuous temper of a king used to getting his own way.

This is not to say that his performance is faultless. There were times, especially in the first half (a stonkingly long 100 minutes), when the volume was set a touch too high and the over-acting dial moved a touch towards the overheat setting. But in the more reflective, quieter, second half, Pennington’s Lear, a bruised and battered human being who has, just too late, come to a wise vision of where true love (that of his daughter Cordelia) lies.

Supporting the great Pennington, Pip Donaghy was outstanding as the elderly Gloucester and brought real dignity to the role. The scene of his brutal blinding was almost unwatchable, even with eyes intact. Other roles were less convincing; Lear’s three daughters seemed a touch lacking in power and genuine nastiness. Joshua Elliott was a curious Fool relying a bit too much on his noisy concertina. Edmund, the play’s chief baddie, sounded like a Shakespearean Robert Presto with his strange vocal pitch.

The giant forbodingly dark set suited the mood of this gloom-fest, the lighting design was particularly strong and there was a terrific lightening storm scene giving the whole a rather epic feel.

Pennington was at least a four-star Lear, maybe not a towering one perhaps, but movingly human and genuinely tragic.

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