Royal Exchange Theatre with Talawa Theatre Company in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre
Arriving to see the queue for returns at the Royal Exchange box office reminded me that the last time I saw this was probably for the Maxine Peake Hamlet nearly two years ago. Four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare can still be good box office.
And this is very good Shakespeare, worth queuing for. There are no imposed modern parallels, framing devices or sudden dance breaks as so often at the Royal Exchange; Michael Buffong returns to this unique theatre as a director with confidence in the play, his actors and his own ability as well as in the audience to understand the words and find their own interpretations without being spoon-fed someone else's ideas.
Don Warrington is a majestic Lear who doesn't rant and bark orders quite so much as some at the start. His lapses into irrationality are fairly subtle at first, becoming more obvious later. This Lear is likeable almost from the start, so his treatment by his elder daughters seems all the more terrible.
One of Lear's most important relationships is with his Fool, played here by the wonderful Miltos Yerolemou with great physical and verbal wit but also bringing out the great love he has for his master as he descends into madness and poverty. It's a very touching relationship. His loyal but wronged servant Kent is played with passion and often with humour by Wil Johnson.
In the parallel parental story, Philip Whitchurch is another very likeable character as Gloucester who is ill-used by his offspring, supported excellently by Alfred Enoch as noble Edgar and Fraser Ayres as his scheming bastard son Edmund.
The setting, designed by Signe Beckmann, has a medieval appearance but the sparsity of the set is complemented by the sumptuousness of the costumes. Lear almost fills the theatre with his grand costume on his first entrance. His daughters Goneril (Rakie Ayola) and Regan (Debbie Korley) have gorgeous dresses and incredible hair, while Cordelia (Pepter Lunkuse) goes from courtly maiden to warrior princess in the almost three hours between her entrances.
But the most impressive part is how well it all comes together. This is three and a half hours of intense, dialogue-heavy drama, but every element of the production is of the highest quality and has been designed to fit the overall production perfectly.
The sword fighting is convincing, as is the rather gruesome eye-gouging scene. The music carries the drama along so that it is barely noticed. Admittedly it was difficult to hear much of Lear's dialogue during the storm scene, but what a storm—and is it necessary to understand every word of this speech?
It's certainly a long play, but it keeps the attention with its perfect pacing, wonderful performances and clear, gimmick-free storytelling.
This is a fitting contribution to the Shakespeare 400 celebrations from the Royal Exchange, which is having a particularly good year in 2016.
Reviewer: David Chadderton