Gloucester and Lear

Philip Whitchurch as the blinded Gloucester with Don Warrington as the mentally disintegrating Lear. Pictures: Jonathan Keenan

King Lear

Birmingham Rep

***

LEAR is regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, a tale of power, politics and betrayal, with perhaps the greatest treachery of all, children plotting against fathers and siblings.

It has plenty of villains to outnumber the heroes, heroes who are always fighting a losing battle to prevent the inevitable unhappy and death strewn ending

We open with sistersLear as the King of Britain, strong, forceful commanding, but growing old. He is a man still in control, still wielding all the power, but tiring of ruling, weary of kingship.

So he proposes to break Britain into three parts, one for each of his three daughters, the largest, and richest, for whichever offspring professes to love him the most.

Goneril, the eldest (Rakie Ayola) and Regan (Debbie Corley) soft soap the old man with sycophantic greeting card flattery, while Cordelia, the youngest (Pepter Lunkuse) is more honest declaring there is nothing to which to compare her great love. Wrong answer, pet.

Never were there such devoted sisters, Goneril, played by Rakie Ayola and Regan, played by Debbie Korley

Lear, enraged by her lack of over the top adulation, throws a regal wobbly and divides her share between her older sisters and banishes her – along with the Earl of Kent (Wil Johnson) who tries to defend her, thus setting in motion a train of events that we know is not going to end well some three hours or so down the line.

Ayola and Corley are equally unlikable as the self-centred and, we discover, rather adulterous sisters – Shakespeare ensuring their characters were sufficiently blackened to deter any sympathy.

Their husbands are a different breed though. Regan’s spouse, the Duke of Cornwall, (Norman Bowman) is a cruel, scheming would be despot while Goneril’s Duke of Albany (Mark Springer), turns out to be a noble, honest hero, although one with little left to be heroic about as the body count mounts at the ed.

That’s Lear’s lot to think about but there is also the Earl of Gloucester, superbly played by Philip Whitchurch, loyal to Lear which is to be his downfall. He is betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund, a nicely sinister and evil performance from Fraser Ayres, who plots against his father and legitimate half-brother Edgar.

Edgar, a clever performance from Alfred Enoch, ends up disguising himself as the local madman Tom after being betrayed by sneaky brother Edmund and declared an outlaw, while Gloucester has his eyes ripped out by Cornwall – told you he was hardly a friendly cove - in a realistic portrayal with eyeballs flying around the stage which was a bit gory for some by the gasps and averted eyes in the audience. His crime? Treason, set up, as you might have guessed, by loving bastard son Edmund.

And all the time Lear is slowly disintegrating, descending into madness and perhaps this is where there is an issue. Don Warrington’s portrayal of the king as reality and sanity start to desert him is powerful stuff and at the end when his kingdom is in tatLear and foolters and his family no more, you start to feel for him as both a King whose kingdom is ruins and as a father betrayed by those who said they loved him and who in turned betrayed the daughter who really did adore him.

But it is as the powerful Lear, the authority figure in control where perhaps Warrington’s contrast with the distraught, distressed old man is not as great as it might be, which means the descent is not as steep nor as marked as it could have been.

No fool like an old fool. Don Warrington as Lear and Miltos Yerolemou as his Fool

To be fair the acoustics at Birmingham Rep are not the best and are certainly no friend of Shakespeare which relies on words and the nuances of language to tell its tale – theatre acoustical design has moved on a pace since the Rep moved into its new home in 1971, witness the new RSC theatre at Stratford where you can literally hear a pin drop, or even the Rep’s next door neighbour, Symphony Hall.

Much dialogue and thus much drama and emotion, was lost along with some of the majesty of one of the great tragedies of the English language.

Tragedy or not there are lighter moments though with Miltos Yerolemou excelling as Lear’s Fool, squeezing out all the laughs with an excellent, comic’s timing, while Thomas Coombes provided more light relief as Oswald, Goneril’s steward, with a nice line in facial expressions and telling gestures

Signe Beckmann’s simple imposing set of Six, huge stone columns surrounding three uneven rings is masterful, filling the stage as hall or heath, aided by a dramatic and superb lighting design from Johanna Town. The two combine to create widely different scenes in an instant and full marks to the dramatic storm scene with real, pouring rain leaving the centre circle awash amid realistic thunder and lightning.

Director Michael Buffong keeps scenes moving without a break and it is all there, the angst, the tragedy, the betrayal, the duplicity and the descent of a once great leader into madness – all that was missing was the spark to lift it from worthy to wonderful. To 28-05-16

Roger Clarke

24-05-16 

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