King Lear (Royal & Derngate)
Michael Pennington plays Shakespeare's great tragic role in a touring production
There has been something of a glut of high-profile Lears in recent years, with everyone from Ian McKellen to Simon Russell Beale tackling Shakespeare's greatest tragic role for the more mature actor. For Michael Pennington, launching into a nationwide tour of this Northampton-made production, it's actually his second go at the part – and what a fine rendition he offers. But more of that anon.
This version, directed by Max Webster, has the potential to feel old-fashioned: dressed in Edwardian costume with a company doubling many roles, it's also visiting some distinguished old playhouses. The sense of a traditional actor-manager decamping with his troupe to the next stopover is never far away.
But Webster and his creative team seem to have taken this possible risk and turned it into a majestic success. Every sumptuous outfit looks beautiful; every doubled part is seized as a new opportunity for interesting characterisation; even the theatre itself becomes a dramatic backdrop to Adrian Linford's simple but brilliantly effective set, which either hems the claustrophobic court in with dark brick or opens out to a sweeping expanse of emptiness as a blasted heath.
Technically, the show is superbly supported throughout. Natasha Chivers turns lighting into an artform, exploiting every chance to add nuance to the play's meaning with her subtle craft. Matthew Bugg's soundscape is equally evocative – the only slight reservation coming with a heavily-scored fight sequence late in the second half.
On stage, the quality of the production is no less evident. In parts that can sometimes feel underdone or caricatured, Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott are steely and scheming as Lear's two older daughters Goneril and Regan, while Adrian Irvine and Shane Attwooll make something meaty and substantive out of their respective husbands.
Gavin Fowler is touching and tortured as the wronged Edgar, Joshua Elliott an entertaining Fool who avoids the pitfalls of overplaying and instead provides a perfect counterpoint to the king's descent into madness. Even tiny roles such as Daniel O'Keefe's servant Oswald are given a breath of fresh air, played with real sincerity and effectiveness.
So, what of that mad old king? Well, from a workmanlike start, when his division of the kingdom between his three daughters feels a little perfunctory and artificial, Pennington draws a clear line through betrayal and familial disloyalty to complete disintegration, undercut by a stunning return to realisation in his final scene. His versatile voice is a joy to listen to, his range all-encompassing, and there are some truly heart-rending moments along the way.
It's not the flashiest Lear you'll see, and it's so much the better for that. Instead, Pennington gives a well-defined, poignant rendition of this mighty role in a production that consistently relies on to a clear and intelligible narrative. In the 400th year since Shakespeare's death, it's a welcome addition to the anniversary tributes.
Running time: 3 hours.
King Lear runs at Royal & Derngate until 23 April, 2016, then tours to Oxford Playhouse (25-30 April), Theatre Royal, Brighton (3-7 May), Richmond Theatre (9-14 May), Grand Opera House, York (23-28 May), Manchester Opera House (31 May-4 June), Theatre Royal, Bath (6-11 June), The Hall for Cornwall, Truro (13-18 June), Cambridge Arts Theatre (20-25 June) and Malvern Theatre (27 June-2 July).