William Shakespeare
HER Productions, Unseemly Women and Girl Gang Manchester
Hope Mill, Manchester

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The TV series Succession has just ended as the Shakespeare play which served as its template returns to the stage. Notable, however, is the absence from the title of the word ‘King’. Lear is an all-female and non-binary production set in the present day.

Nevertheless, the text of the play, with references to the king and the gender of the characters, is unchanged. Director Kayleigh Hawkins does, however, set a strikingly contemporary tone. There is the impression, post-Brexit / post-COVID, Lear’s kingdom is unstable with unreliable services and sharp divisions between the haves and the have-nots. Lear’s opening speech is interrupted by a power cut, and the ready availability of candles indicates such interruptions to basic services are commonplace.

Rather than a sardonic teller of truths, Phoebe Farrington’s Fool, dressed in the style of Max Miller’s Cheeky Chappie, provides a therapeutic service for the unhappy monarch. Christine Mackie’s Lear shows early signs of anxiety-based depression, and the Fool offers relief with comic routines becoming healing mantras.

Rather than being naïve and studious, Alice Proctor’s Edgar (along with his father Gloucester played by Fiona Scott) are upper-crust and out of touch with everyday concerns. Their harrowing experiences demonstrate the loss of innocence and of faith in authority and illustrate their society’s lack of concern for the less well-off. Kent (Adelina Lece-Bere) sneaks back from banishment dressed in the manner of an urban street fighter as if anticipating conflict. In a suitably nasty touch of irony, a destitute Lear seeks refuge in a shelter for homeless people.

The sheer scale of the play presents enormous practical challenges for a theatre company with limited resources. Necessity dictates a scaled-back production; apart from lavish curtains, the sole prop is a massive table, of the size favoured by Putin, which serves a variety of purposes.

It is still early days for the production and the cast are a bit overawed by the text. In crowd scenes, there is a tendency to stand dead still when a character is speaking rather than react to the speech. There is some unevenness. The showdown between Edgar and Edmund is ferocious, including a very impressive flying kick to the head, yet an earlier fight is so unconvincing as to unintentionally draw laughter.

The play is hardly an advertisement for good parenting. Gloucester not only publicly acknowledges Edmund’s illegitimacy, he boasts his mother was good in bed. Yet, surprisingly, the relationship between Lear and their children is initially presented as loving, with the family cheerfully embracing and joking (Cordelia and Goneril even play-fighting), which makes their later enmity all the more shocking.

There are some surprising interpretations of the characters. Gina Fillingham’s outrage pushes Goneril to the point of hysteria, achieving the rare distinction of getting intentional laughs in one of Shakespeare’s grimmest plays. Ella Heywood’s Cordelia, rather than sweetly dutiful, is assertive and confident her actions are correct. Haylie Jones’s Edmund is a smiling, self-aware villain; even the closing moments, in which he seems repentant, have an element of boasting, showing off his cleverness to the last.

Christine Mackie is a superb Lear. She speaks the verse beautifully, but this is a human rather simply a technical performance. Mackie shows how deeply Lear feels, reacts almost physically, to every perceived slight. A privileged background has given Lear a child-like innocence—an expectation they will always get what they want. But Mackie draws out the negative side to such an attitude with a childish petulance, resulting in terrifying displays of anger including cursing their own children. Underneath it all is the bewildered sense of hurt as Lear tries to come to terms with not being loved by their children.

The vivid political context set by HER Productions ensures Lear is a successful interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most harrowing and demanding plays.

(After Hope Mill, Manchester, Lear tours to The Shakespeare North Playhouse in Prescot, 21–24 June 2023.)

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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