King Lear has been summoning his insincere daughters to his chamber for over four hundred years, trading his kingdom for their sycophancies and empty promises of love and devotion. And yet, whilst the situations remain the same, the impact of the play could not feel more relevant to the shape of British society as it does in this new production at the Citizens.
Dominic Hill's startling reinvention of one of the Bard's greatest tragedies has blown a tempest through Shakespeare's text, extracting every subtext in every word, every emotion in every line and resurrecting ancient issues for a modern audience. Here, the rich play out their dark purpose in full view of the huddled masses and, one by one, lose their minds and their hearts to greed and betrayal.
Hill's players are uniformly excellent. Owen Whitelaw's curve-limbed Fool is sharper than your average jester, relishing the wisdom of his riddles with a sly smile and soothing the tortured king with songs played out on a piano like a Weimar cabaret star. As Lear’s rebellious daughters Regan and Goneril, Shauna MacDonald and Kathryn Howden make a wonderfully serpentine allegiance, groaning with orgasmic delight in the play's most bloody moments and parting with the pantomime villainy with which they are often played.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown and David Hayman carries it with great certainly and balance. Here, Lear is a gangster, a forceful predator of both the dirty city and the corridors of power. Surrounding himself with beer swigging youths in sharp suits, he clings to his youth, sexuality and mind, slamming Kent into a table and throwing his booming voice around the auditorium like an iron fist. His delivery of the tempest scene is shattering, interpreting the frustration and fury of his failing character with power and potency.
And yet, the great power of this production is not in its rising anger but in its dwindling sorrow. Hayman seems to physically shrink as his daughters turn against him, throwing off the symbols of power which made him immortal and exposing the fractured nature of man. Alone in a standard-issue red wheelchair, Hayman's Lear is perhaps the first to diagnose his madness as dementia; the theatrical weight of the metamorphosis of a once powerful king to a trembling shadow is crushing and true.
And it is in this crushingly recognisable decline, both of Lear's mind and his kingdom, which marks this as a performance for our age. Our society, Hill reminds us, remains as divided as Lear's.