At a running time of just 90 minutes, director Benjamin Blyth’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear does an impressive job of staging a play that usually runs for about three hours. With a well-paced dénouement and a few small cuts, Shakespeare’s tragedy gains both pace and energy, while admittedly becoming a lot more manageable. In the cavernous insides of the remarkable theatre that is The Rose Playhouse, audiences are treated to an atmospheric performance of Shakespeare’s tale that is due most notably to the inventive use of staging.
The Rose Playhouse, erected in 1587, stands as the first Tudor theatre on Bankside, and this sense of history is overwhelmingly present from the seats of the audience. Although the majority of the action occurs in front of you, the wild madness of the storm scenes is magnified intensely being staged at a distance, amidst the stone expanse of the original foundations of the theatre. Glimpsing Lear’s tempestuous descent into madness through the metal grid of the railing that separates the immediate stage from the large archaeological site is a viewing experience unique to this production of Lear. It is thanks to this split-level, interesting staging that this production of King Lear owes just as much to its theatre as its performance.
BAFTA-nominated John McEnery’s Lear leads this production as a mad and foolish king whose grand voice and rising anger lend themselves to raging speeches that capture the tirades of a man losing power. Equally, his portrayal of Lear in the final scenes, soft-spoken and childlike, suggests that his is ultimately a sympathetic take on the aging king. The rest of the company is made up of performances that fully exploit the potential of the range of characters; Orla Jackson plays an unsettlingly joyful Regan against Claire Dyson’s stone-cold Goneril, Samuel Clifford’s Fool is a lively splash of colour with his songs and bouncy wit, while Ludovic Hughes’s goat-like mannerisms as the wild, “unaccommodated” Poor Tom mark his transformation from the good and honest Edgar.
Brian Merry’s simple costume design sets this play firmly outside of time; an idea heightened by the occasional music accompaniment, and echoed further by the curious mixture of old and new in the presence of a theatre borne out of the Elizabethan era. As such, the conflict of time periods and split-level staging almost reflects the disorder of the world of King Lear, making this production an impressive and inventive marriage of theatre and performance.
King Lear is playing The Rose Playhouse, Bankside until 30 April. For tickets and more information, see The Rose Theatre website.