King Lear

William Shakespeare
Royal and Derngate
Richmond Theatre

Michael Pennington Credit: Marc Brenner
Michael Pennington, Sally Scott and Shane Attwoll Credit: Marc Brenner
Gavin Fowler and Daniel O'Keefe (Oswald) Credit: Marc Brenner

Cordelia walks to the front of the stage carrying a hunting rifle at the start of the Royal and Derngate’s imaginative production of King Lear. She stands there alone for a moment as if pondering something very serious. Raising the rifle, she fires across the heads of the audience.

This grim image of her isolation anticipates what happens a little later when Lear divides his kingdom between his daughters according to their expressions of love for him. Goneril and Regan offer him exaggerated affection. Each is awarded half the kingdom. Cordelia fails to please him and gets nothing. It is a terrible mistake that will lead to war and a world where, in the words of the character the Earl of Gloucester (Pip Donaghy), "madmen lead the blind."

When first performed in 1606, this play would have been seen by some as a commentary on the foolishness of King James lavishing money and positions on court flatterers. Shakespeare allowed the character of the King to make the critical observations on the "scurvy politicians". Referring to the example of a dog chasing a beggar, he says of the people appointed to office of the State, "there thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office."

Michael Pennington gives a clear and perceptive performance as Lear. He begins the show as a relaxed, playful father handing over his power. The decision to give Cordelia nothing is made to seem more tentative and less vindictive than it is often portrayed. By the end, Lear is deeply traumatised, but Michael Pennigton makes sure we never miss that even while suffering Lear is sharply intelligent about the world around him.

Pip Donaghy is very impressive as a sensitive and engaging Gloucester. Both he and Lear are presented as warmly physical with others. Gloucester affectionately hugs his son Edmund. Lear gently kisses the head of Cordelia in the opening scene and later also kisses the head of Gloucester who has been brutally wounded by Cornwall (Shane Attwoll).

Director Max Webster’s fine attention to detail gives us many vivid moments. There is the very disturbing image of Gloucester’s face under torture contorting into an expression that is reminiscent of the painter Francis Bacon’s screaming Pope. It is not an expression you will easily forget.

In that same scene, there is also that all too human reaction of the second servant to physically flinch when he is given a knife to hold after he has watched another servant try to stop the torture and fail. He looks at the knife as if it is the horror he has just witnessed.

This is a very visually, distinct production in part due to the ingenious lighting of Natasha Chivers but also others in the creative team who ensure that characters stand and move about in ways that ensure that every moment appears interesting. Take a photograph at any random point in this show and you will have a picture that will look painterly in its composition.

This is a very enjoyable production. I arrived to the hundred and ninety-five-minute performance slightly tired. By the end I was alert, refreshed, and wanting to instantly watch the show again.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna