It is unusual to see King Lear and leave feeling that it is a play for the zone two roles. But that is exactly how I felt after seeing The Malachites’ production.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest plays is performed in the spellbinding space of Peckham Asylum, up-lit in a low-key style that only furthers the desolate feel of the piece. It is to the performers’ credit that rather than be upstaged by the crumbling walls and ornate tablets, it is the action of the play that draws you in. I certainly didn’t notice the corrugated steel roof – completely out of place – until the second half.
Often I found myself delighted by the characters onstage. Lear’s Fool, played by Samuel Clifford, is as whimsical, as wise and as morose as ever, flitting about the stage with lively precision. He creates order from his chaotic riddles, giving the audience a rib tickle in the first act, and stirring our sympathies deftly after half time. David Knight’s Kent is a street-smart geezer. While it is a shame he isn’t so convincingly fearsome that you believe he might actually break open another actor’s skull, his fierce loyalty is never in doubt. Nick Finegan as Edmund is also on form. His Janus nature is finely tuned so that you see clearly how Gloucester falls into his trap. Finegan would play a fine Iago. There is lightness to him too: even in the final act he drew laughs from us with his ‘Both? One? Neither?’ speech.
Ludovic Hughes’s Edgar and Stephen Connery-Brown as Gloucester were two figures I found disappointing at first, downplayed as simply morally good characters. But once Old Tom sprung onstage, delivering pure energy with his light Scottish lilt and a momentum that he carried through to his final scenes as Edgar again, his rage and righteousness palpable, I was wholly back onside with him. He became the Orestes-like tragic hero at the centre of the piece, aided wholly by a softened Gloucester whose performance, once he loses his eyes, is triumphant in its pathos.
Of course there is a notable exception. Playing Lear is John McEnery, who I know as Mercutio from the Zeffirelli production of Romeo and Juliet that I imagine a number of us watched at school. He delivers almost the entire play with his script in his hand, repeating lines that he fuddles and halting sharply in the middle of Lear’s epic speeches in order to turn a page. Though Benjamin Blyth explains how this helps to draw a parallel between McEnery and Lear, with nods to Brecht, it is not pleasant to be disengaged from the action in this way.
The whole production design is a stellar treat, with a washed-out palette of colours and a chronological patchwork quilt of costumes. Perhaps Oswald was dressed a little too ostentatiously, but for the rest there was a rough and ready round the edges feel that brought out their humanity. Deborah Pritchard and Danielle LaRose’s modernist and atmospheric soundscape rose over our pews at key moments to punctuate the storm and battle scenes. Additionally, though it looked like lighting options were quite limited to the company given the venue, subtle changes were made when it mattered, and the storm scene is certainly something to behold.
This is a show that I thoroughly recommend, both for some strong portrayals of some of Shakespeare’s most important characters, and for the tonal effect of the eerie venue on this bulwark of a play. One small word of warning: wrap up warm. Though the scenes in the wilderness are made more immersive by a chill that descends over time, and the crew do look after you with generously sized 50p cups of tea at the interval, it was a wee bit nippy in the final scenes. But these actors do deserve an audience: you will revel in their performance. In McEnery you will also be baffled. But there’s an experience to be had in that too.
King Lear is playing at Peckham Asylum until 5 March. For more information and tickets, see The Malachites website.