Twelve years ago, when Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory staged King Lear as its inaugural production, Andrew Hilton’s direction was much lauded for its unflashy focus on Shakespeare’s language; a textual commitment on which he has since built a sterling reputation. Yet, in this new, bare-staged and reverent production of Lear, one is forced to question – blasphemous though many may consider it – whether a fine reading of the text is enough to provide the kind of raw, elemental shock to the system which the Bard’s brutal, proto-absurdist tour-de-force ought to deliver.
In the title role, John Shrapnel gives a stout performance which succeeds in coherently steering the play towards its tragic conclusion, but never quite fathoms the myriad nuances of Lear’s madness. Part of the problem is that his is a vehemently petulant King from the get-go; there is a growl forming in Shrapnel’s throat even as he asks his daughters “which of you shall we say doth love us most?”, so that his banishing of Cordelia calls for nothing less than an apoplectic explosion in order to seem severe by comparison. The immediate results are compelling, but set a bar for the central mad scenes which proves too high. Perhaps the suggestion is that Lear’s insanity is an affectation springing from his own, undying sense of self-importance; it seems more accurate to conclude that the gradation of Lear’s madness has here been slightly misjudged.
Without a singularly magnetic King, members of the supporting cast are given the space to shine: Trevor Cooper’s Gloucester is truly, movingly outstanding, whilst Edmund’s soliloquies are handled with such direct, dastardly panache by Jack Whitam that he is surely lining himself up for a future stint as Iago. The quality of the ensemble work here only serves to make the production’s languishment in directorial limbo yet more frustrating; of course radical innovation isn’t essential, but, surely, an awareness of the possibilities of the text beyond the speaking of it is. The closest we come to a conceptual choice is in Harriet de Winton’s costumes, which inexplicably lurch from the traditionally Jacobean to the confusingly contemporary somewhere in Act IV, whilst in the staging there isn’t a uniquely striking visual moment to be found.
It would be disingenuous not to recognise the overall sturdiness of this production; its veneration may not foster the kind of soul-shaking intensity which accompanies great tragic theatre, but Hilton maintains pace and places a creditable emphasis on clarity. This makes it ideal for those who wish to dip their toes into the Shakespearean puddle with the knowledge that few artistic liberties have been taken with the material, but risks alienating the many who would prefer to witness something bold and memorable than solid and stultifying.
King Lear plays Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre until 24 March. Photography by Graham Burke.