King Lear at the Oxford Playhouse

The Oxford Times, 28th April 2016, Katherine MacAlister

Slightly reluctant to venture out on a cold, wet snowy Monday evening for three hours of Shakespearean tragedy, from the moment Cordelia walked out onto the Playhouse stage I was absolutely spellbound.

I stayed that way until the bitter end, and I mean bitter because there is always a stunned silence when the play finishes and the audience has to congratulate rather than let the horror of what we have just witnessed wash over us.

Neither did I notice the passing of time, so gripping was every moment, so beautifully crafted and acted, all holding our breath as King Lear’s demise came slowly and ever more predictably into sight.

Not that it was ever going to be anything but brilliant, starring Michael Pennington as Lear, as he did so brilliantly in its New York debut, he having spent the last two years bringing it back over the pond for us to enjoy.

Now I can see why he bothered. Because the acting was exemplary, the Elizabethan text utterly relevant in today’s world - where jealousy, political intrigue, lust, betrayal, politics, family rifts, uncertainty, bravery, loyalty and love all raise their heads.

The contemporary, if bare, set and costumes meant the play was more apt, the cast proving absolutely how and why Shakespeare had=s such a relevant role in today’s literary line-up, despite its 400 year time-line.

And Michael Pennington’s version demonstrated this absolutely (we’ve all endured the bad versions), because despite knowing the story inside out we were all absolutely transfixed. Not a stir from the audience, not a cough or splutter, not a shifting in a seat or the untwisting of sweet wrappers, just transfixed silence, punctuated with the odd gasp, or jump.

I had to press my fingers into my ears and hide my face with my programme for the eye gouging scene, but otherwise I wouldn’t have missed a second of it.

A stunning cast, Pennington aside, who was quite simply extraordinary, from the utterly vulnerable wheelchair bound washed up king we see at the end, through the fire of his anger, the despair at his betrayal, punctuated by his looming dementia. The fool played by Joshua Elliott, Edgar and Poor Tom by Gavin Fowler and a suitably Machiavellian Edmund, played by Scott Karim, newcomer Caleb Frederick, who played minor roles such as France and the doctor, making a good impression.

Overall then a stunning production, and quite possibly the best Shakespeare I have ever seen.

I implore you to go to this King Lear and see whether you like Shakespeare or not.

The Reviews Hub, Oxford Playhouse, Fergus Morgan, 26th April 2016

Michael Pennington has played them all: Richard II, Henry V, Leontes, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Hamlet, you name it. Now, nearing 73, he is touring the UK as the title role in Max Webster’s King Lear. His Lear is remarkable in its range of emotion, descending from barrel-chested brashness into doddery, near-senility over two and a half hours. In an otherwise underwhelming production, his stark development is a distinct highlight.

At first, in Adrian Linford’s vaguely Edwardian design, Pennington stands resplendent and strong in ceremonial military get-up, looking like a warlike Emperor of India and chopping up a map of England with brutal efficiency. His demands of love from Goneril (Catherine Bailey), Regan (Sally Scott) and Cordelia (Beth Cooke) are the vain reassurances of an absent father, and his angry rejection of Cordelia is not for her lack of affection, but for her refusal to complement his comforting narrative.

His fall from grace is gradual. At first, unshackled from his duties, he happily stomps about Goneril’s estate in a large brown coat, joking and jesting with his band of cavorting country gents. Next, castigated by Goneril, he is gruff and indignant, viciously and vindictively wishing her barren. Then, receiving even shorter shrift at the hands of Regan, he is desperate, wheedling and pleading. Finally, he is majestic once more, furiously berating the wind with booming authority.

His words have no power now, though, and they shift from the commands of a respected monarch to the ugly cursed-filled babbling of a deluded old man with notable subtlety. He ends up totally senile, unmoving and stupefied in a wooden wheelchair, staring blankly at the ground, bereft of all cares at last, but bereft of reason too. It’s a powerfully sculpted performance from a great classic actor.

Alongside him, Pip Donaghy us a similarly white-haired Gloucester, an old comrade overseas perhaps. His delivery varies haphazardly from the declamatory to the spontaneous, but he is at his most human when robbed of his eyes, doggedly seeking his own destruction. When he re-encounters his beloved Lear, the pair bury themselves in each other’s shoulder for consolation: two old men, surveying their hopeless position side by side in a cruel mockery of their former grandeur.

Scott Karim is a deliciously slippery Edmund, his deep ironic voice carrying an undercurrent of brutality beneath its clipped consonants. Gavin Fowler is a convincing Edgar, even if his transformation from wine-swilling waist-coated posho to babbling madman to lean freedom fighter is a little jerky.

Yet for all this, Webster’s production feels somewhat underdeveloped, perhaps because he joined the project late, with cast and crew already assembled. Small touches - Cordelia opening the show by aiming a rifle into the stalls and firing for example - feel like arbitrary decoration to disguise a lack of substance underneath. Away from the performance mentioned above the cast are distinctly middle of the road. It’s a shame that Bailey and Scott do not offer more as the hear-hearted sisters, their reserve maybe a diluting direction, rather than a concentrating one.

Without Pennington’s classy central performance, this would be an unremarkable King Lear. As it is, he bears almost all upon his septuagenarian shoulders.

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