Monday 13 May 2013

Theatre review: King Lear (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

King Lear divides his kingdom between the two of his daughters who flatter him the most, banishing the third for her refusal to play the courtly game. But words turn out to mean little when all your power's gone, and when Goneril and Regan refuse him the honours he still expects, Lear is cast out to the elements. Storms, war and madness bring the former king down to man at his most basic level, and in the process he learns what it means to be human. Following Hamlet and As You Like It in past years, King Lear is the latest play to get the patented Shakespeare's Globe stripped-down treatment, in a touring production that this week pitches up on home ground. Eight actors plus two musicians, 1940s costumes and a lot of doubling are used to tell one of Shakespeare's best-known stories.

This lo-fi approach (directed by Bill Buckhurst, co-director of the stripped-down Hamlet) is one that's becoming familiar now, and it has its strengths and weaknesses. It makes for an energetic rendition of the story, often with a lighter, more comedic touch than usual. It does also mean though that the doubling can border on the confusing, and that the production can't delve as deeply as some into the characters.

Joseph Marcell makes for an ebullient Lear in his opening scenes, very likeable although his violent changes of mood are a bit underplayed, and unexplained here. He's better as events conspire to strip him of everything down to his wits, and the production features a wonderfully effective storm scene utilising a curtain and a number of onstage sound-effects, that combine to send a chill down the spine (although nature's own special effects got their timing way off, the heavens opening on the groundlings well into the second half.)

Ruth Everett and Shanaya Rafaat are a very good Goneril and Regan, gleefully enjoying their wickedness without ever approaching panto villainy, and also making rather a good case for the common sense of their denying Lear his knights (having two rival, possibly drunken, military forces in the same house is not the best way to keep the peace.) Bethan Cullinane gives some rather clumsy line readings as Cordelia, although her Fool is more natural. And Dickon Tyrrell's a bit disappointing as Kent, a character who can be the heart of the piece or fade into the background, here doing the latter.

In the sub-plot of a man trusting the wrong son rather than the wrong daughter, Rawiri Paratene seems to be going for an almost Polonius-like, likeable old duffer of a Gloucester, which is an interesting take although his comic performance got a bit broad for my taste. Oliver Boot's Edmund is charismatically evil enough although I didn't get any of the spark of sex appeal from him that has Lear's daughters fighting to the death over him. Sexier is Matthew Romain's vicious Cornwall, contending tonight with a runaway eyeball in his blinding of Gloucester scene; he also doubles as an Edgar who goes particularly grubby and mental in his incarnation as Poor Tom.

I do think that if the budget of these small-scale tours could stretch to just one or two more actors it would be a real boost to the clarity of storytelling - at the interval I heard more than the usual amount of people trying to untangle the multiple doubling of roles, although I did think the simple costumes changes were nicely done. This isn't a Lear with a particularly high concept and it has its dodgy moments, but it is a charming production with a lot of energy.

King Lear by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 18th of May at Shakespeare's Globe; then continuing on tour to Brighton, Parham House in West Sussex, Worthing, Salisbury, Petronell-Carnuntum, Neuss, Buxton, Dumfries, Hedingham Castle in Essex, Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, Penrith, Cambridge and Elsinore.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.


  1. I think the criticism of Dickon Tyrrell (Kent) is unfair- when I viewed the production at The Globe Theater he did a sterling job and made Kent my favourite character.

  2. such a fabulous production. saw it in the grounds of old wardour castle. stunning