Lear's Daughters

Yellow Earth Theatre

Soho Theatre

(2003)

Review by Jackie Fletcher

Lear's Daughters was originally devised in 1987 by the Women's Theatre Group in collaboration with Elaine Feinstein (doyen of the women's lib movement and author of the novel Brecht's Women). I was surprised to find it revived in our supposedly 'post-feminist' era, but I emerged from the Soho Theatre heartened by the contemporary relevance with which this imaginative new staging has been imbued. This is a fine interpretation of the script and director David K.S. Tse's very beautiful production is thoughtful, provocative, tightly-paced and visually stimulating. A multicultural cast give fine, measured performances. Feminism might have been declared passé, but in this production it is evident that 'herstory' makes for riveting drama.

Unfortunately, I missed the original production. The script seems on reading too grounded in its era to be acceptable to audiences within the confines of contemporary theatre provision in which realism (albeit 'in-yer-face' realism) and safe revivals of the classics have dominated for too long. Its non-naturalistic form, perhaps even vaguely Brechtian in its episodic structure, is one which flourished during those heady days of theatrical experimentation before the Arts' Council of the '80s axed subsidies to the most dynamic young companies that were putting British theatre back on the Continental map. In a post-Thatcherite Britain a theatre meaningful in its social engagement was rendered irrelevant within the confines of the new individualism and political-motivated theatre (to feminists the 'personal is political') became dramatis persona non grata, if I may be excused the pun. I must say that I was intrigued by the possibilities of this revival, but, frankly, I expected the worst. I am utterly delighted to say that I was entirely wrong.

Tse is obviously a director with vision, and he has blown new life into the form. This is a production that combines the very best of British characterisation, while embracing the visual potential for live theatre that I would recognise as European.

Three young girls, isolated from parents who are absent due to their jobs, are cared for by a Nanny who gives them security by feeding them with myths. These prove facile when adolescence imposes boundaries on their growth and fulfilment. The play explores innocence turned to tragic cynicism, the naivity of childhood turned to despair. It does what Shakespeare didn't do, and let's dispense with the myth of the great male bard, let's ask why Shakespeare, in Lear, presented father-son relationships, but failed to explain the hatred Regan and Goneril feel towards their father Lear, and their transformation into women of cruelty and violence. The mother is absent from Shakespeare's Lear, this play puts the absent mother back into the equation through the lives of her daughters.

Tse creates a wonderful ambience of naïve joy and love that renders the growing realisation of impotence all the more like violation. It is Tse's ability to evoke mood that carries the point, rather than the dialogue. The narrative structure is uncomfortably but appositely disjointed and can touch a raw nerve as epic theatre does by both appealing and unsettling. Bronwyn Mei Lim, Liana Gould and Liz Sutherland bring depth to Lear's daughters, and one senses a calm at the centre of performances full of the characters' turmoil and crises. Antoni Kemi Coker is a gem as the Fool, enhancing all the character's androgynous qualities, the mystery and ambiguity at the core of the character and offering us an engagement with the action.

Dealing with daughters sequestered in an ivory tower, looking down on the spread of the city's street lights in the timeless night from behind venetian blinds, conjoined to believe in the myth of the father that is the ultimate all-powerful male, it is a tale of the failure of powerful men to create a viable world order, a world in which women hide male incompetence from the next generation of women because it's the only way they can survive. But this is not a didactic production, nor a museum piece recreating something that had pith fifteen years ago. Tse cleverly uses videos of young girls talking in the here and now about their fathers: fathers who are letting them down by going away; girls who love their fathers and want to spend more time with them and are expressing, in that feeling of absence, a lack that will affect their self esteem and their relationships with men in the future. It is, in fact, truly topical: a modern parable.

This review was delayed by email problems. he production is now finished.