In the ancient realm of King Lear the death count is as high as Hamlet, betrayals on a par with Macbeth and the blood as thick and fast-flowing as Titus Andronicus. Murder, misery and mutilations drive Michael Buffong’s mesmerising adaptation of King Lear, one of William Shakespeare’s most violent and tragic plays.
It was a memorable night at the Royal Exchange, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, by watching Don Warrington master the lead role of the royal patriarch, who descends into madness. The twisting plot of King Lear requires careful exposition at the start that quickly builds momentum. Buffong’s excellent cast, including Philip Whitchurch and Wil Johnson, deliver sword fights and despicable deeds one after the other, after the other, after the other, until Lear’s tragic downfall is complete. At over three hours long, one audience member commented that, “there was a lot of shouting”. Take heed – this is no Midsummer’s Night Dream but a play charting the catastrophic breakdown of a country and family – clearly there is going to be a lot of shouting.
Initially, Warrington plays Lear with a restrained temperament as he splits his sovereignty between his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. But there is one condition – the daughters must worthily attest their love for the old king – before being given their share. Goneril and Regan oblige but Cordelia, visibly younger and played with verve by Pepter Lunkuse, refuses to speak. Lear misinterprets his daughter’s silence as an act of defiance. His restraint turns into tyrannical rage; Cordelia is disinherited to France and the Earl of Kent (a most loyal gentleman) is banished.
King Lear is mad. Or so it seems to his court. Supported by the cast, Warrington walks the tightrope of tyrannical ruler vs self-pitying fool with ease, balancing frothing and shouting at the gills with the quieter, more reflective moments of Lear’s madness. In fact, the many contrasts within the play, including the chaos of Lear’s disarrayed court, really come alive in scenes between the King and his fool, played superbly by Miltos Yerolemou.
Full of double jeopardy and dual roles, King Lear is a difficult play to navigate for both audience and actor alike, yet all the performances in Pennington’s production are note-worthy. From the faithful Earl of Kent (Wil Johnson) who disguises himself with a Mockney accent to watch-over his King; to the villainous bastard Edmund (Fraser Ayres) who delivers lines with a touch of Jonathon Rhys Meyers (think Henry VIII). The Duke of Gloucester (Philip Whitchurch) truly suffers for his art, whilst comic relief is provided by the ‘lily-livered’, ‘barbermonger’ servant, Oswald (Thomas Combes). Alfred Enoch’s portrayal of the honourable Edgar is most compelling, not as a nobleman, but when he contorts, twists and writhes as the mock madman ‘Tam O’Shanter’.
Under the flicker of torchlight, Signe Beckmann’s minimal round ‘O’ becomes like Lear’s mad old brain – dark and dimmed – whilst the numerous exits and entrances of the Royal Exchange create draughty castles and the openness of a heath where Lear is soaked with rain during the set-piece storm of Act III. The violence of the play culminates with the seat-squirming blinding of the Earl of Gloucester (Act III, Scene VII) which was thoroughly uncomfortable – luckily this reviewer witnessed the mutilation from the reverse side as Gloucester’s eyes were cast out into the audience – much to their horror and disgust.
As the three hours drew to a close, Warrington’s Lear became increasingly pitiful, weeping over the body of his daughter. In the end, Lear’s country, family and crown lies in ruins – all for seemingly nothing. Or is it? Shakespeare’s plays hold up a mirror to the world he lived in, including the world of politics. And they still do now – four hundred years later. One of the best lines on the night (which drew audible sneers from the audience) was when Lear spoke to the blinded Gloucester and said, “Get thee glass eyes, / And like a scurvy politician seem / To see the things thou dost not.” Act VI, Scene VII. Seemingly, Shakespeare’s words still have the power to arrest us and reflect on the world around us.
King Lear is on at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 7 MAY 2016
For further details and tickets click: http://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/king-lear
This review is based on the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 7pm performance on Tuesday 12th April, 2016