King Lear is a timeless Shakespearian tragedy. Presented by Royal & Derngate Northampton at the Richmond Theatre, we watch the King split his kingdom to his three daughters. Much ensues as he bases his decision of the split on their love for him. His most beloved Cordelia insists that she cannot partake in his fancies, and so she receives nothing. Fickle and strong-willed, we watch the King go mad at his plight, as his daughters usurp him and turn on each other, as Edmund says, ‘The younger rises when the old doth fall .’ As with most Shakespearian tragedies, almost everyone dies in the end, and this story is not without heart-wrenching and gory deaths.
Michael Pennington heads the production as the titular role, he is an age-old Shakespearean actor. Although at points his vocal strength reaches breaking point, he breaks our hearts as he pulls Cordelia out of the wings with a rope around her neck. He has utterly essential emotional and comedic control for the role.
Both Gloucester’s (Pip Donaghy) legitimate son Edgar, played by Gavin Fowler, and illegitimate son Edmund played by Scott Karim are extremely strong lead actors. Fowler is genuine and heartfelt whilst caring after his blind father, and we are gunning for him from the get-go. Unfortunately the terrible two, Goneril (Catherine Bailey) and Regan (Sally Scott) fail to hold their own compared. They’re words aren’t harsh enough, and the only person who manages to cut it in this respect is Karim. During his numerous insights directed towards the audience, we feel the swagger and confidence of his actions, even if his speech is a little contrived at times. Shane Attwool (playing Cornwall) even adds a much needed evil to the scene during the gouging of Gloucesters eyes, as it seems Scott can’t hold her own.
The design of the production is well done, with a vauge 1940s feel to the costumes, and a harsh setting for the stage. The sound (Matthew Bugg) and lighting (Natasha Chivers) is mostly strong, adding to the well designed set and feel of the show. The extreme rake of the stage makes it hard for the actors, as well as the close proximity of the space, which feels like it wasn’t taken into account when directed. Heightened moments are stunted, with all movement feeling small in an already small space. Which makes the stage fighting look very basic and extremely contrived. The action hops from peak to trough, instead of raising in a natural way.
As I watch King Lear, I begin to appreciate how gorgeous the story is, and for once the emotional side of the tragedy stuck out to me more than the extremes of the deaths. The contrast of the poor and rich, the mad and supposedly sane, show Shakespeare for the playwright he truly was; both a political spectator and commentator. What is the use of reviving the old if not to reevaluate the values we see in new theatre? King Lear is a prime example of the more we watch and revive Shakespeare, the more value we uncover from it.
King Lear is playing Richmond Theatre until 14 of May. For more information and tickets, see the Richmond Theatre website.
Photo: Marc Brenner