King Lear

William Shakespeare
English Touring Theatre at the Old Vic

This is very much a play of two halves. Before the interval as the drama is set up, Stephen Unwin's production seems rather flat and fails to fill the big space that is the Old Vic. This looks like a studio production and with actors gabbling lines; there is sometimes a sense of confusion.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtain rises after the interval, we are watching a wholly different and immeasurably better production. The fast changes of scene, which are enabled by Neil Warmington's minimalist design, really begin to work and the pace is impressive. Added to this is Olly Fox's dissonant interlude music with often only the time for a telling bar or two between scenes

In any event, the show looks great, as the bare stage, cleverly lit courtesy of Bruno Poet, sees actors performing in gorgeous seventeenth-century dress, designed by Warmington and Mark Bouman - all velvet and ruffs. This is something of a rarity for Shakespeare productions these days and is most welcome. In fact, on several occasions the tableaux on stage look as if they are drawn from paintings.

The show is built around Timothy West's choleric Lear, a man whose madness appears to result initially from great stress, that seemingly modern disease. This persuades him to give his country to his daughters with disastrous results as he banishes the good one, Cordelia (Rachel Pickup), and soon receives similar treatment himself, from her sisters.

His mental problems develop from there into a kind of nervous breakdown as his world collapses around him and thence to a madness with weird periods of great lucidity. After the interval, West produces an incredibly moving performance as a bemused old man betrayed by his haughty daughters and some of his courtiers.

In this production, Unwin brings out the parallels between the King and his family and Gloucester and his own very well. Michael Cronin is a sympathetic Gloucester who, like his King, pays dearly for his own foolishness in trusting a wicked child, Edmund, a self-loving man with an extremely large chip on his shoulder.

West gets good support, particularly from Garry Cooper as the doughty Earl of Kent and Nick Fletcher as an apparently stigmatised, Christ-like Edgar. On the other side, Jessica Turner and Catherine Kanter as Goneril and Regan and Dominic Rickhards as Edmund taunt the two old men to their horrible deaths.

There may have been a few hiccups along the way but it is good to see the English Touring Theatre in London. By the end of the evening, you come away with the feeling that their Lear is a memorable production that is well worth seeing.

Last year, Peter Lathan reviewed the same production at the Gala Theatre, Durham.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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