From the opening scene, Ben Benison’s Jack Lear promises to be mythic. In Lear (Barrie Rutter), we are supposed to find a bewitched trawlerman, motivated by the grandeur of Norse Gods. He and his daughters play out a tragedy in the classic style, filled with sex, deception, and (of course) some good old-fashioned sword fighting. The atmosphere of folklore follows the audience, from the folk music swelling in the lobby, to the Heron theatre decked out in green and white fishing net, an epic scene has been set. When the cast take the stage in their oilskins to perform Eliza Carthy’s beautiful music, the production settles into the cultural bedding that feels like its natural home.
Rutter’s staging is at times inspiring, and it is he who truly attempts to be as mythic as the opening scene promises. Throughout, the use of Carthy’s music spurs on the action. Domestic scenes framed by nautical set feel just as natural as the dynamic storm that marks the end of act one. It cannot be said that Rutter shies away from the text’s epic challenges. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the script offers so few of them.
Somewhat weighed down by adherence to the plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Benison’s play has some startling pacing problems. The first act feels particularly stunted. It stops too regularly. We rush from scene to scene and very little action actually occurs onstage. Instead, it is relayed later in long speeches. Aideen Malone’s stellar lighting design, punctuated by the rushing beat of the ever-present drums, does its level best to cover the lengthy scene changes as we swing from location to location, but even Rutter’s staging sometimes succumbs to the stasis of the text. That is not to say that the language is not beautiful, because it is. Benison’s command of verse is excellent. At times, subverting this heightened form leads to brilliant comic turns. It has also allowed for images and metaphors that are truly moving, most potently those that speak of Lear’s love of the sea. The heavy structure, however, saps from the play a warmth which the modernisation should have allowed for.
The cast make use of every advantage that Benison’s play provides them. Only Olivia Onyehara as Victoria occasionally feels stilted by the density of the language and is so captivating the rest of the time that it hardly needs mentioning. Every wicked and comic moment is perfectly executed by Nicola Sanderson, Sarah Naughton and Andy Cryer as Morganna, Freda and Edmund. They steer the show through some of its most challenging feats. Cryer delivers Edmund’s sleaziest speeches with hilarity and believability. The more notable corners of the triangle, however, are Sanderson and Naughton. Every moment that they are onstage is a delight, whether they’re warring, scheming or seducing a canny Edmund. When the mythic concepts reach their most fantastical heights, these three actors breath humanity (or perhaps more importantly, humour) into their characters.
That said, it is Rutter’s Lear and Onyehara’s Victoria that form the heart of the production. Onyehara provides a rooted normality amidst a world that manages to be distinctly distant. This is partly due to Kate Unwin’s ingenious costuming of Victoria, in stark contrast to her sisters. It is also because Onyehara plays the truth of the script rather than the myth. In her performance we find a daughter who is losing a father she loves. In Rutter’s capable hands, Jack Lear’s verses find stable footing. Lear becomes a purveyor of myth, one who seems to create the world of the play with words. To see the two of them together in the second act is simply a joy.
In the second act of the play we find a mix of pathos, comedy and drama that makes the shortcomings of the first almost forgivable. Yet somehow, for me at least, the marriage of myth to pathos in Jack Lear is not a happy one. The attempt to use verse and tragedy to raise a trawlerman to Shakespearean heights draws him too far from his audience. The mythic aspects of the production feel occasionally forced. None of this, however, can remove the play from the heart of its audience because when Rutter speaks of the “twilight of the Gods”, a line of connection runs to each of us. All human Gods grow old. While the folklore occasionally carries the production away, the cast and the burning heart of the story bring it back to what is real, true and empathetic.
Jack Lear is playing until 2 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Hull Truck Theatre website.