King Lear at the Opera House, Manchester

The Reviews Hub, Iain Sykes

400 years since the death of William Shakespeare and the country is awash with tributes to the Bard, including somewhat of a glut of his greatest tragic character, King Lear. Directed by Max Webster with Michael Pennington as Lear, this touring production is certainly towards the top of the list.

Pennington’s Lear is an angry tyrant from the very first scene as he disowns his youngest daughter, Cordelia and banishes his loyal servant, Kent, from his kingdom. Along his descent into madness, he allows the character to remain strong and regal while showing glimpses of his future self, as the betrayal of his family hits home, before his touching return to reality. Pennington is a great classical actor with complete mastery of the text and the ability to connect the character to the whole audience in the barn of the theatre that is the Opera House.

But this is not a production that is totally dominated by the title character, with fine performances throughout. Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott as Lear’s oldest daughters are a duo of evil and plotting, Bailey’s domineering Goneril and Scott’s Regan, coldly clutching her baby in  the most unmaternal manner. Equally menacing is Scott Karim’s Edmund whose calculating nature is even more chilling by the cold way in which his lines are delivered. Gavin Fowler as his brother Edgar takes the character on a journey from carefree, champagne guzzling playboy to mature nobleman vai his faked madness. Shane Attwooll’s Cornwall is a raging psychopath in his scene plucking the eyes from Pip Donaghy’s Gloucester. Joshua Elliott’s Fool delivers his barbs in a kindly and measured manner although his words are often lost under the music from his accordion.

The set, designed by Adrian Linford is a dark and brooding construction of walls and windows. Natasha Chivers’ lighting design works well, especially in the lightning in the heath scene., Which is a little let down by the wind machine effect which, despite the best efforts of the actors, looks more like blossom floating in a light spring breeze than a full-on storm. That small issue aside, and a French army flag-waving moment seemingly stolen from a certain French-set musical, Max Webster’s direction is sharp and keeps the action speeding along in a 1930’s style setting. Incidental music accompanying dramatic fight scenes, and Beth Cooke’s Cordelia, for some reason, making her initial appearance brandishing a shotgun at the audience.

Overall though, this is a down-to-earth, unpretentious Shakespeare production, very much character led. And with a super cast led by Michael Pennington, it’s a production worth seeing.

Return to King Lear Reviews