An ageing monarch. Three daughters. A kingdom divided. The story is familiar, we think we know it. The conniving, false, mean-spirited Goneril and Regan cheat the “more sinned against than sinning” King Lear, and drive him mad. The kind-hearted and virtuous daughter Cordeila, on the other hand, risks telling truth to power and is banished for it. It all ends in tears.
Well, not quite. Michael Buffong’s production takes a more nuanced approach to King Lear’s fate.
It all ends in tears.
Amongst a strong, diverse ensemble cast Rakie Ayola and Debbie Korley stand out as Goneril and Regan, women who resort to extremes their attempt to carve out their own place in a man’s world. The sisters, who are often rendered as near-identical purely evil pantomime villains, are here played with extraordinary humanity by Ayola and Korley.
Ayola’s performance as Goneril is particularly striking. She is a woman driven to extremes by the logic of the patriarchal world she inhabits. Her tyrannical father brutally curses her to sterility, and she is abandoned by an unfeeling and callous husband. In a particularly powerful moment, she backs away from the dying Edmund, and ends her own life rather than face the betrayal of another man.
Goneril is a woman driven to extremes by the logic of the patriarchal world she inhabits.
The bare set – six pillars and a series of grey concentric circles that gradually rake upwards – reflects the barren landscape of the play’s setting. This minimalist but imposing staging successfully stands in for both court and moor, civilisation and wilderness. The costumes, though rather ‘Game of Thrones’ in their aesthetic, help to effectively render a feudalist medieval world.
Don Warrington’s Lear begins as a gruff and commanding tyrant. His train of 100 unruly followers are raucous and out of control. They are reminiscent of unruly football fans, chanting, drinking and harassing the female servants.
The costumes, though rather ‘Game of Thrones’ in their aesthetic, help to effectively render a feudalist medieval world.
Warrington’s performance really shines as Lear loses his wits and begins to resemble his Fool (Miltos Yerolemou), whose melancholic ramblings and quick wit soon add up to a comfortable rapport with Warrington’s Lear.
Alfred Enoch, best known for playing Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter franchise, provides another stand out performance as Edgar. Enoch scrambles all over the stage, twitching and stuttering his “Poor Tom” refrain. He deftly navigates between the regal posture of a Lord’s son and the deferential crouch of a peasant, effortlessly switching accent and mode. For a part that can so often become the dull dupe to his delightfully Iago-like older brother, Enoch’s Edgar avoids this trap, giving the impression of an incredibly competent and clever planner.
Enoch deftly navigates between the regal posture of a Lord’s son and the deferential crouch of a peasant, effortlessly switching accent and mode.
While altogether this is an impressive production, the choice to place the interval in the middle of the storm scene seems jarring and arbitrary. In addition, though the technical lighting and rain effects are impressive, and the simple emblematic staging evocative, there is very much a feeling that the cast are still grappling with the re-staging of the piece.
Having initially been staged in the round at the Manchester Royal Exchange, to rework the piece for proscenium stage, many of the asides and the moments where the action is shared by the audience have been cut.
If you’re a Shakespeare fan, this is an important production to watch.
In many ways the production feels like it hasn’t quite overcome these obstacles, leading to some awkward moments where characters have to turn to the audience in order to give asides. However, the staging remained slick and pacey and the production didn’t feel long, even with the 3 hour 45 minute run time. If you’re a Shakespeare fan, this is an important production to watch, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend.