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King Lear

by on 25 February 2022

Blast Furnace

King Lear

by William Shakespeare

The Rhinoceros Theatre Company at the Hampton Hill Theatre until 26th February

Review by Mark Aspen

Storm Dudley, Storm Eunice, Storm Franklin.   The week leading up to the opening night of Rhinoceros Theatre Company’s new production of King Lear left most open land in the country as a blasted heath.   This tempestuous triumvirate was an appropriate herald to announce the arrival of a remarkably insightful production that captures both the elemental and visceral nature of what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. 

The atmospheric set of hessian drapes, swagged from the flies, creates the oppressed mood of the play.  The effective simplicity of Patrick Troughton’s design with its solitary centrepiece rock is the foil for Rob Arundel’s subtle lighting and Josh Bayfield’s sound, such that everything is hidden yet everything is in full view.   There is an omnipresent mist, but the air moves the drapes, be it in draughts or tempests.  The design tour de force though, is in conception of the costumes by a skilled quartet, Zoe Harvey-Lee, Junis Olmscheid, Terri Creswell and Miriam King, who add in some nice touches: Goneril wears the horned crescent of Artemis, the huntress; and the Duke of Burgundy wears, well, burgundy.

Shakespeare sets King Lear in an unspecified time in ancient Britain. This production by-passes the usual attempts at a mythical or historic interpretation, in order to get to the guts of what the play is about, the overarching might of love and loyalty, over power-seeking and its concomitant cruelty and cupidity.   

Nigel Andrews as King Lear

Greatest or not, King Lear is certainly the Bard’s most profoundly intense plays, and as such demands quality acting.  To which end, its director Fiona Smith has gathered a cast of semi-professional and award-winning club theatre actors.    Her production spotlights the elemental indifference of nature to human frailty, not so much in Lear’s battering on the blasted heath, as in the disintegration of his mind in his pitiful dementia.  Mirroring Lear’s tribulations of the mind is Gloucester’s of the body.   That indifference of nature to suffering is horrifically mirrored in the indifference of the abusers of Lear, of Gloucester, and in the fullness of time Goneril and Regan, in spite of their being the arch-antagonists germinating that abuse.  Smith and her cast focus this spotlight with accuracy.

Anastasia Drew as Cordelia

It must be said that there is not a weak link in the whole of the cast, indeed it has an ensemble strength as well as there being outstanding individual performances.  All are totally engaged in the action: witness the opening scene, in which Lear divides his kingdom between his daughters.  When the youngest, Cordelia is disinherited for being unable to express her love for her father in the terms of insincere flattery used by her two sisters, Goneril and Regan, our actors faces tell us in each character’s reactions what their stance will be, and which in due course will affect the sorry outcomes of Lear’s rash decisions made by his unravelling mind.  We see Cordelia’s palpable sorrow and disbelief, Goneril and Regan’s gleeful greed, and the indignation of the honest Duke of Kent at this affront to the devoted Cordelia, when “majesty stoops to folly”.

Jane Marcus as Goneril

And so the momentum is given to some fine acting. 

Helen Geldert as Regan

Jane Marcus’ Goneril and Helen Geldert’s Regan are certainly a pair of hissing sisters, oozing dissemblance from the off.  Both consummate actresses, they underline the just how dangerously manipulative these the sisters are.  Everything is double-edged, even with each other, particularly when dealing with the usurping Edmund.   “’Tis the infirmity of his age”, says Regan of her father, adding ironically, “yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself”.  In the pursuit of power, they even have a double-edged attitude to their respective husbands: Goneril dismissing hers, the Duke of Albany, as impotent; while Regan pumps up her lusty husband, the Duke of Cornwall, to almost unspeakable brutality, like a Lady Macbeth on steroids.   Robin Legard plays the hapless Albany with agitation and equanimity in equal measures.  John Wilkinson’s vicious Cornwall is sneeringly sardonic.   Marcus’s and Geldert’s portrayal of the sisters feels like a hand grenade with the pin pulled, in its anticipation of danger.  Their sexual manipulation is a means to power, and their competition for the equally predatory Edmund is their downfall.

Luke Daxon as Edgar

Edmund has a big, big chip on his shoulder, which the sobriquet The Bastard does nothing to mollify, in spite of the instance of his father the Earl of Gloucester that he is no less dear to him than his legitimate son, Edgar.  Lawrence McGrandles plays Edmund as an arch-schemer with a ruthless insouciance and callousness that makes Vladimir Putin look kind.  Luke Daxon’s Edgar appears at first almost timorous, but Edgar has the long psychological journey, via his alter ego Poor Tom, to the man of nobility who pulls some measure of redemption from the eventual emotional wreckage.  Daxon shows us this painful journey, his Poor Tom being a pitiful creature, dermatologically challenged in his disguise as “Tom o’ Bedlam” and even inciting the pity of the deranged Lear, as an “unaccommodated man”. 

Smith has injected much insightful psychology into this production, starkly evident in the blinding of Gloucester.  There is a sickeningly warped sexuality in the long passionate French kiss between Cornwall and Regan, as they gouge out the eyes of the helpless Gloucester, which delivers a blow to one’s solar plexus.  It subtly reinforces the horror of the act, which is more effective in not being explicit.  We see the reaction of those around and Gloucester’s writhing agony, but horror works best in the imagination, as here.

Daniel Wain robustly portrays Gloucester as an open man, whose honesty and over-generosity lead to his downfall.   He believes that good will prevail and, when it doesn’t, he falls into suicidal deep depression.  Wain takes Gloucester from a man who can shake with disbelief as Lear’s foolishness, to one indignant at his usurpation and being denied his own home, to one bent double with the burden of his mental and physical sufferings.

One of the many themes running through King Lear is the notion of loyalty, be it for ill as with Oswald, Goneril’s steward, played with steadfast gravitas by David Dadswell, or for good as with the Earl of Kent.  Kent is the only one to speak out against Lear’s initial rash decision and is exiled for his pains.  Circumventing his banishment (it’s amazing in Shakespeare that nobody in disguise is ever recognised), Kent stays always in the picture like a guardian angel, remaining particularly loyal to the equally exiled Cordelia.  Peter Hill is superb in the role of Kent; we see in his expressions and body language that Kent is one of few to understand consequences of actions.  Hill paints a highly sympathetic picture.

The eponymous role of King Lear is a difficult one to get right in balance.  It is easy to play (to use the vernacular) an “old twit” on one hand and a “raving looney” on the other.   Nigel Andrews, in the title role, gets the balance right and demonstrates the humanity of the man, a man struggling to rescue his own dignity.  Andrews play the part with subtlety, giving a Lear who knows he has lost his own self-knowledge and is struggling to find it again.   Nigel Andrews was a long-standing film critic for the Financial Times and twice won the Critic of the Year award, so reviewing a fellow critic could be fraught.  However, although he has written and presented BBC arts programmes for the radio, and it is many years since he has trodden the boards, his Lear is a remarkably outstanding achievement.   

Fran Billigton as Lear’s Fool

The fool in Shakespeare is not a stock character, but an important philosophic element.  Lear’s Fool is perhaps the pre-eminently poignant development of Shakespeare’s concept.  Lear’s Fool is another loyal character, this time to Lear himself.   Fran Billington puts unflagging energy into the role.  The script is un-bowdlerised, so she lets rip in all its bawdiness, without losing one jot of its coded wisdom.  Billington is an astute actress and it shows in an outstanding performance. 

The tragedy in King Lear is that nobody wins, nobody gains.  It would be overbearingly bleak, but for its closing moments of redemption.   Anastasia Drew plays a soft and gentle Cordelia, with great charm and compassion, and her final reconciliation with Andrews’ Lear, is heart-achingly touching, a tear-swelling end to top class rendition of King Lear.  And the last ironic touch of brilliance is to bring in Cordelia’s body on the large tapestry map that been used in the division of the kingdom, and the consequent shattering of so many lives.

Lear challenges nature, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!  Rage!  Blow, you cataracts and hurricanoes”, but it is not so much dark side of nature that causes the devastation, as the dark side of human nature. 

Mark Aspen, February 2022

Photography by Nigel Cole

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