If there’s one thing of which you can’t accuse Red Rose Chain, it’s of doing things by numbers. Now, hot on the heels of their recent success Different Buttons, comes a bold re-imagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. However, for this outing, like many of her annual open-air productions in Suffolk’s sprawling Rendlesham Forest, artistic director Joanna Carrick has opted for a more comedic approach.
While this might have Shakespeare purists up in arms, the fact remains that this more whimsical format makes these shows infinitely accessible to younger audiences and those more mature who might find early modern English texts challenging.
So, for the first act, it’s almost Lear in PantoLand – all periwigs, over-the-top-performance, and bad-taste costumery. In fact, the whole thing takes on an air of a troupe of strolling players entertaining villagers on the green, and that’s the secret of these rough-and-ready open air productions – to try not to view them through the eyes of a modern audience.
Of course the characters are larger than life – they need to be so in the open air, and to stand out in broad daylight against the backdrop of enormous trees. Without the constant stream of vitriol between members of the royal household – Goneril (Carrick), Regan (Owen Morgan), and Cordelia (Lauryn Redding) – King Lear takes on a warmer, more audience-friendly gait.
As twilight falls, the second act is – literally and tonally – a much darker affair. As Lear (Edward Day) descends into madness, the once effete caricature who tootled about on a gilded mobile throne is stripped of his wig and ermine and becomes the very picture of an early 19th Century lunatic. Without giving too much of the plot away, the Fool with whom the old king has such a bond is a chilling creation that will send a shiver down the spine of many.
Does a comic Lear work? Perhaps some of the eloquence and the rhythm of the original text is lost to this anarchic treatment but there is still much to commend. It’s bright, as cheerful as a Shakespearean tragedy can be, and it’s clearly popular with audiences in the first week of its month-long run. Academics will no doubt scoff at the thought of the bargain-basement look and brazen handling, but they’re unlikely to sit in a forest for two hours in the dark.