The Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory seasons have been one of the glories of Bristol theatre for the past decade or more. Each show feels like an event: the 240-seat theatre is always packed, the audience contains more than its fair share of young people, and the plays are staged in the round with exemplary clarity and immediacy. Director Andrew Hilton has built up a real ensemble of excellent actors whose work together has become richer and deeper over the years; it is a real pleasure to see actors of the calibre of Simon Armstrong, Alan Coveney and Byron Mondahl return again and again. On occasion Hilton has brought in a leading actor from outside who has melded into the company with apparent ease. Last year John Heffernan was an impressive Richard II; this year John Shrapnel, possessor of one of the richest, most glorious basses in the business, tackles one of the pinnacles of Shakespearean drama.
Wisely Andrew Hilton is not too specific about the setting of the play (Shakespeare isn’t either): Harriet de Winton’s costumes initially indicate we are in the early 17th century; later on the greatcoats and wheelchair give an early 20th-century feel. King Lear doesn’t require historical detail; man’s place in the cosmic system and human nature are at the heart of the play, not politics and society. In this production Gloucester’s ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport’ and Edgar’s ‘The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices, make instruments to plague us’ carry equal weight; the audience is free to decide itself what justice there is in this world.
Shrapnel is an outstanding Lear. He captures the vanity of a monarch whose every whim is indulged, the terrifying fury of a bully whom no one has ever dared counter when his beloved Cordelia ruins his opening charade, the movement from bitterness at his treatment at the hands of his elder daughters to anguish at his own folly and a humbled realisation of the wrongs he has done to others. Other actors give performances of equal distinction. Julia Hills’ Goneril and Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Regan are more than mere malignity; in the opening scene their distress at what is clearly yet another of their father’s rages is palpable and their diminishing fear as they humiliate him and their own rivalry takes over are beautifully charted. Christopher Bianchi makes the Fool, which can be one of the most thankless roles in the canon, both funny and touching. Jack Whitam makes a suitably villainous Edmund, able to get a laugh from a simple adjustment of his collar. Simon Armstrong’s Kent is the moral heart of the evening. There is not a weak link in the cast.
The production is fluid and fleet. Time and again simple directorial decisions illuminate character and meaning. Regan’s slow backward walk as she suggests her father return to Goneril’s home and apologise to her is the action of one who is still fearful of her father’s reaction but a slyly provocative withdrawing from him too. Gloucester is more of a comic bumbler than is usual. The interval comes at the end of Act II, earlier than most, but it feels apt: the King of the first half is an outcast in the second, and his long progress towards reconciliation is uninterrupted. Lear’s tender hug of the Fool as they enter the hovel and of Gloucester when they recognise each other are moving gestures of compassion and stages on his path to understanding his folly.
Finally, this is the most moving Lear I have seen since Richard Eyre’s National Theatre production with Ian Holm in 1997. When Shrapnel’s gorgeous voice bids us ‘Howl, howl, howl!’ I felt like obeying him. My tears started then; Lear’s last moments and Kent’s and Edgar’s final words are devastating.