King Lear at the York Grand Opera House

 The Northern Echo, 31st May 2016, Charles Hutchinson

Maybe, the public’s perception would be that King Lear is more of a York Theatre Royal kind of night-out, but the opera houses’s red velvet seats; proscenium arch stage; good acoustics and sightlines allows little difference.

The main incentive to attend is seeing one of England’s very finest Shakespeare actors, Michael Pennington, playing Lear on his storm-ravaged journey from reckless folly to crushed self-awareness.

Playing him at the ideal age of 72, Pennington can still carry the body of daughter Cordelia and still burn with the fervour of making his Lear debut, as the only Brit actor in Brooklyn in 2014, and turning his Royal Shakespeare apprenticeship into co-founding the English Shakespeare Company.

Yes, King Lear is a difficult play, a grim play, a dysfunctional family drama of terrible and tragic consequences. However, it would be even more of a tragedy to not experience Pennington’s moving performance in this visceral production that pulls no punches, as Pip Donaghy’s Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out and tossed to the ground.

There is humour too, more than usual, although not from Joshua Elliott’s gaudy young Fool, while the sensuality is suitably hot and bothered between Catherine Bailey’s Goneril and Scott Karim’s sinuous, snake-hopped villain, Edmund. Beth Cooke’s Cordelia tugs at the heartstrings, while Gavin Fowler excels in his dual role as Edgar, disguising himself as Poor Tom, the madman.

Sally Scott’s Regan carries her baby in her arms with all the enthusiasm of a fox for fox-hunting, as cold and austere as Adrian Linford’s 1940’s dark, satanic set., 31st May 2016

Taking a break from its usual repertoire of musicals, tribute acts and touring comedians, the Grand Opera House York plays host to King Lear until Saturday evening. With the houselights still on Beth Cooke as Cordelia, accompanied by the ensemble cast dressed in military attire, walks onto the stage and fires a musket in the direction of the audience. Such an attention grabbing opening scene suggests surprises to come, however what follows is three hours of commendable, but very traditional, Shakespeare.

The stage was largely sparse throughout the play, and this continued into the storm scene, where much use was made of lighting and sound to create a tempest on the stage of the Opera House. The projection of a map of the country onto the backdrop, which subsequently fell to the ground as the storm built up was a nice touch. Another interesting choice was the sudden transition from the jewel tones of the first scene, to the muted military outfits that followed. The theme of war was prevalent in this production, and resonated in the music and costume used throughout the play.

Joshua Elliott’s performance as the Fool was initially underwhelming. His interactions with Lear (played by the RSC’s Michael Pennington), seemed strained, as he desperately tried to please his master, and was met with silence or the occasional laboured smile. However, this disjointed relationship gave way to Elliott’s interpretation of a Fool who is devastated at the changes he sees in his master. His failure to please the ever more mad Lear culminated in his prophesying towards the end of the first half, and the transition from Fool to philosopher showed with the sincere melancholia with which the character dictated to the audience. Watching the Fool’s battle with Poor Tom for his master’s approval was heartbreaking and offered an interesting interpretation of the character’s relationship with Lear.

Indeed for me it was the relationship between the King and his loyal friends that elicited the most emotion in the production. Lear, adorned with flowers, kneels with the blinded Gloucester; the light-hearted jokes of the former and the tears of the latter are truly moving. Even more so are Kent’s departing words: “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls me, I must not say no”. Disappearing into the misty darkness from which Edgar appeared, Tom McGovern’s final words truly impart on the audience the pain of what this man has witnessed. Throughout the play, McGovern was impressive; his transition from respectable Earl to the roguish Caius was well done. The torrent of abuse that he pours upon Oswald was superb and demonstrated a masterclass in Shakespearean insults.

One directional decision was made that stood out from other adaptations of the text. In a play punctuated by the lack of children on stage, the placing of a baby in Regan’s arms in the first scene demonstrated a change from the norm. While the child continued to make occasional appearances on stage - including a fairly brutal kicking of the Moses basket from its mother - it wasn’t obviously apparent as to why the decision had been made to introduce the baby. Yes, it shows Regan’s lack of maternal instinct, and yes, we are able to see her cruel and callous nature more obviously, but it didn’t particularly add much to the production and the baby’s presence on stage was largely ignored by all other characters. While some subtle touching of stomachs and Goneril’s obvious pain at being cursed with infertility by her father enhanced the theme of maternity in the play, not much was made of it, and it seemed to be ignored in the second half.

While there weren’t many deviations from the original text - and those that were introduced seemed unnecessary - Max Webster’s production was a success. Michael Pennington’s depiction of Lear’s descent into madness was moving, and his final scenes with Cordelia were touching, but not over done. Definitely worth watching.


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