Anyone seeing Lear for the first time tonight would have got the impression that it was some kind of horror play. Some rather portentous music heralds the action, the first scene of which takes place in a gloomy castle: Tom Scutt's set and costume design accentuate this rather monochrome world, hinting at dark goings-on.
Michael Attenborough's production is strong on the family dynamics that underpin this tragedy with a novel interpretation of a motivation for Goneril and Regan's malevolence. The clear undercurrent of sexual abuse when Lear kisses Goneril fiercely on the mouth when he says "thou shalt find that I have resumed the shape which thou dost think I have cast off forever" is a reminder that this king wasn't always an old man of fourscore years and upwards.
Jonathan Pryce is a fine Lear. There's an authority to his verse speaking and he captures well the latent rage of a king. There's not much made of the undercurrent of sexual abuse - the violent rages are barely simmering under the surface. There's a playfulness too; the scene with the newly-blinded Gloucester elicits much laughter, much more than is usual in this scene.
One of the elements of the play that is really highlighted are its pagan origins - something we're reminded of during the Fool's (usually omitted) speech about all action taking place in the days before Merlin. Lear makes frequent exhortations to the gods, his eyes are raised to the heavens so much I half-wondered whether his family was up in the gallery.
While the first part of the play takes place in a Stygian gloom, the second part is bathed in sunshine while green shoots emerge from the stage. Again, I was strongly reminded of pagan themes of rebirth and regeneration even if it looked a bit heavy-handed.
The supporting cast is a bit and miss. The daughters are particularly strong, especially Phoebe Fox's feisty and defiant Cordelia, clearly at loggerheads with her sisters from the outset. But Zoe Waites and Jenny Jules are a powerful Goneril and Regan, deeply suspicious of each other, while harbouring a resentment of their father. I liked Trevor Fox's Geordie Fool too - the accent bringing a new level of understanding to the Fool’s wordplay.
Not the strongest production of Lear, perhaps - there's not much sense of the redemptive journey undertaken by Lear and little attention paid to the political perspective - but it's strong on the destructive nature of family relationships while Pryce's performance alone makes this worth seeing.
Photo: Chook Sibtain (Cornwall), Jenny Jules (Regan), Jonathan Pryce (King Lear), Zoe Waites (Goneril) and Richard Hope (Albany)