Sheffield Crucible is a famously versatile arena, and for Edward Bond’s Lear, we initially find it converted to a building site, with men in hard hats and soldiers enforcing good working practices at gunpoint – the first sign of the violence that will dominate the evening.
In Bond’s epic 1971 re-telling of the story, Lear is obsessed with building a wall around his kingdom to ensure peace and freedom (how relevant is that 30 years on?). His two ungrateful daughters marry the king’s enemies, and after defeat in battle, Lear becomes the madman/outcast much earlier than in Shakespeare’s play. Cordelia, having already suffered rape and her husband’s murder, leads a people’s army in revolt and wholesale carnage sweeps away her sisters, innumerable minor characters and, eventually, Lear, killed in the act of destroying his own wall.
Dislocated recollections of Shakespeare’s play chime discordantly through the evening. It is Lear who is blinded and who echoes the Dover cliff scene. Both sisters promise themselves not to an Edmund figure, but to an ageing general who then takes on the Gloucester role, though only his eyes escape the maiming. Verbal echoes abound, too, most movingly in Lear’s final hint of Kent’s “I have a journey shortly to go”. Among many other misplaced pieces of the jigsaw is the fact that, in the midst of oddly renamed and unnamed characters, two, Cornwall and Cordelia, keep their original names.
In the programme, Michael Grandage, outgoing associate director at Sheffield Theatres, expresses the hope that we will “enjoy the performance” – not the most appropriate phrase. Jonathan Kent’s magnificent production is a harrowing procession of horrors occasionally relieved by mordant wit. Dick Bird’s set seems to extend even the vast space of the Crucible acting area, at times finding a pastoral charm amid the sand and concrete, with Tim Mitchell’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound both revelling in atmospheric contrasts: bright strips or boxes of light amid the ever-present threat of darkness or a soundscape of birdsong and gunfire.
In a committed 22-strong cast, many playing up to six parts, Claudie Blakley, sourly intelligent, and Sharon Small, manically skittish, mine the sisters’ self-obsession to great effect, both connoisseurs of contempt, and Robert East is splendidly smooth as two turncoat survivors, removing Lear’s eyes with medically-warranted panache.
And then there’s Ian McDiarmid, triumphantly reunited with his former Almeida Theatre joint artistic director, Jonathan Kent. In his journey from the over-active certainty of the first act through agony and madness to something like redemption, McDiarmid’s combination of danger and pathos, of expressive physicality and daunting vocal range, is never less than compelling.
- Ron Simpson