King Lear

William Shakespeare
English Touring Theatre
Gala Theatre, Durham

I suppose it is inevitable that, when your aim is to bring "quality theatre to as many people as possible throughout the country" - which is what the English Touring Theatre sets out to do - that a Shakespeare production, particularly of Lear which is not the most performed of his plays, will be in a traditional mode. It's certainly true of Stephen Unwin's production.

The set - simple but effective, which is what is required for a touring show which has to fit into a range of different sizes of theatres - is reminiscent of many an RSC production. Sensitive lighting (by Bruno Poet) and Duncan Chave's soundscape add to its effectiveness.

But any production of Lear stands and falls by the actors and, in particular, the main character. Timothy West's is not a ranting or bombastic Lear: rather he is comparatively low-key, an approach which brings out the humour in many lines. We don't expect to hear a Lear audience laughing, but they do with this production. We are not talking belly laugh funny, but a kind of wry humour - and not just from Lear: Gloucester's comments on Edmund's birth raised a laugh, too - which adds a certain poignancy that is lost amid the roar of most Lears.

I did, however, want more in the "Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl!" speech - perhaps not a primal scream, but certainly a cry de profundis. The restraint so effective elsewhere was out of place here.

It was a strong cast, and I particularly liked Rachel Pickup's hard-edged Cordelia and Dominic Rickhard's Edmund - although I still cannot really believe his change of heart as he lies dying. Michael Cronin's Gloucester was more sympathetic than usual: his comments on Edmund's birth, mentioned above, were gruff and affectionate, making Edmund's "Now, gods, stand up for bastards" speech far more the result of his own inherent evil than ill use at the hands of his father.

If Lear was low-key, so, too, was David Cardy's Fool, and, for me, some of his Chorus-like observations were lost because of it.

What worried me about this production, however, was the ending. It was, somehow, out of joint. Kent shouted that most moving of lines, "Vex not his soul", and that jarred, so that emotional flow was disturbed and I was left a mite unsatisfied

The audience was not, however, and the final applause was long and loud. It was a polished production and, because the quality of the cast, well done. Not quite the palpable hit I had hoped for, but close, very close.

"King Lear" plays at the Gala Theatre, Durham, until Saturday 23rd NOvember, before going on to the Theatre Royal, York (26th to 30th), the Theatre Royal, Brighton (3rd to 7th December) and the Alhambra, Bradford (10th to 14th December).

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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