More has probably been written about King Lear than about any other Shakespeare play, even Hamlet, so a new production brings very clear challenges. How to wring something new from so familiar a text? How to contain its huge length in a way to capture a modern audience? How to elicit fresh, alive performances from its cast?
In this new English Touring Theatre production, artistic director Stephen Unwin succeeds on all three counts in as thrilling an evening of Shakespearean theatre as you are ever likely to see.
Unwin sets his traditionally-costumed company against a stark-white and minimalistically modern set (designed and lit by Neil Warmington and Bruno Poet, respectively) that comprises a simple raised dias and a steel-framed video screen marking the changes in time and place. Rather than seeming a contradiction of styles, this approach serves to concentrate the mind on the quality of the performances. And what performances they are!
Timothy West might as well have been born to the title role, so convincing is he in it. After his initial outburst against his beloved Cordelia, his Lear's descent into offspring-induced madness is full of humility and vulnerability - the slow realisation of the truth about his despicable daughters nothing short of heart-rending.
Jessica Turner and Catherine Kanter are chilling as Goneril and Regan, as is Dominic Rickhards as the Earl of Gloucester's bastard son Edmund, who positively revels in his own villainy, spitting his venomous plans at his audience with an evil smirk. Rachel Pickup is a serene Cordelia, full of so much grace and goodness that you just wish for once she could escape her inevitable demise.
And the roll call of talent goes on and on - Michael Cronin's portrayal of the blinded Gloucester is almost too painful to bear; David Cardy's limping fool the embodiment of Shakespeare's assertion that, in the final analysis, every man is created equal whatever their social position; and Garry Cooper and Nick Fletcher cut heroic figures as the wronged Kent and Edgar, their scenes in their alter egos as Lear's manservant and Mad Tom being particularly effective.
For many years, King Lear was considered nigh on unperformable due to its length. Here, Unwin has addressed this with some fairly extensive cuts. Shakespeare purists may baulk, but the trimming has been done with such care - removing only the incomprehensible, rhetorical and repetitive - that nothing of true significance has been lost. Rather, what we're left with is two-and-three-quarter hours of scintillating theatre that provides a clarity of meaning and character study to captivate all comers.
(Tip to students of the Bard: the evening's programmes includes a full copy of the edited script - well worth the extra £2.50!)
- John Lawson (reviewed at Norwich's Theatre Royal)