King Lear

With a degree of trepidation I went to see Circa’s performance of King Lear on Saturday night. The trepidation being that since being forced to study Shakespeare at school, I had resisted his work. Also a production that lasts over two and a half hours is normally too long for me.

But I’m glad I did, as it was a stunningly good show. I’d even say it was theatre at its finest. A very fitting way to mar the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare.

The synopsis of the play is:

The story opens in ancient Britain, where the elderly King Lear is deciding to give up his power and divide his realm amongst his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. Lear’s plan is to give the largest piece of his kingdom to the child who professes to love him the most, certain that his favorite daughter, Cordelia, will win the challenge. Goneril and Regan, corrupt and deceitful, lie to their father with sappy and excessive declarations of affection. Cordelia, however, refuses to engage in Lear’s game, and replies simply that she loves him as a daughter should. Her lackluster retort, despite its sincerity, enrages Lear, and he disowns Cordelia completely.

Ray Henwood as King Lear is masterful – he captures so well a proud wrathful King, and then also his descent into madness. It is hard to imagine anyone else doing the role so well, except perhaps Ian McKellen. Henwood’s eyes are quite captivating as he plays the sad and mad King.

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The play is definitely not a comedy, but there are comic moments provided by Gavin Rutherford who is excellent as King Lear’s Fool. His burbling is often cutting and cruel, yet funny.

Other actors who stood out were Nick Dunbar as Oswald, the steward to Goneril (the oldest sister). Dunbar just seems a natural at playing the evil sneering characters.

Ken Blackburn was also an excellent Duke of Gloucester, who tragically allowed one son to turn him against the other.

Also of note was the conflict between the two brothers Edgar and Edmund, portrayed by Andrew Paterson and Guy Langford. Paterson did especially well with Edgar when he pretended to be a madman, to hide from those seeking to kill him.

The play was directed by Michael Hurst, who is an acclaimed Shakespearean director and produced by Carolyn Henwood (who in her spare time is a District Court Judge and chair of the Parole Board!).

The stage design was simple yet effective. Such a large cast (12 principal actors) saw more of the stage used than normal in One.

An interesting production choice was to have it set in Britain in the 1930s, rather than the ancient past. The costumes were suits, dresses and military uniforms of the era, and it worked. It made the play seem a more modern story, rather than something that could never happen today.

King Lear is a powerful story. It is a tragedy driven by vices of jealousy, lust, power and envy. There is no happy ending, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. Of interest, an alternate version of the play was very popular for around 150 years, until 1838. That version had a happy ever after ending for some. But the original Shakespeare version has reigned supreme since then and is regarded as his greatest work for its focus on the nature of kinship and suffering.

The best play I have seen so far in 2016.

Rating: ****1/2

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