The Everyman theatre, to which Pete Postlethwaite has made a triumphant return, has its limitations as a performance space. But director-of-the-moment Rupert Goold skillfully plays to its strengths with his first production of King Lear – bringing the action into the heart of the audience – while Giles Cadle’s minimalist set of weedy steps and corrugated iron backdrop complement the action to powerful effect. Clever use of back projection provides context and setting, augmenting the battle scenes in particular.
The opening scene is playfully enacted – the division of Lear’s lands executed as three-dimensional models parcelled up in glass cases ready for presentation. This is Lear in his element – swaggering, bullying, shamelessly courting flattery. A microphone handed to each daughter in turn heightens the awkwardness of the moment in which Lear demands to know the extent of their love.
Fine supporting performances from John Shrapnel as Gloucester and the two sisters, played with wicked relish by Caroline Faber as Goneril and Charlotte Randle as Regan, leave no doubt as to where their sympathies should lie. Although Edmund played by Jonjo O\'Neill is unconvincing in the first act, he finds his stride in the second, growing into the role of usurper and manipulator. Forbes Masson\'s brilliant Fool meanwhile provides moments of both humour and pathos. His dismay as he tries to persuade Lear to take shelter from the storm is particularly moving.
Tobias Menzies switches from the shrewd and sensitive Edgar to ‘Poor Tom’ with impressive facility. His alarming ticks and verbal assaults provide a terrific counterpoint to Postlethewaite’s more understated portrayal of madness. The intimacy of the theatre allows Postlethwaite to show with great subtlety Lear’s decline from powerful king, to frail and pitiable old man. His madness is one of bewilderment – the familiar becoming incomprehensible and threatening.