Dido, Queen of Carthage I decided to catch Lazarus' companion show in the final performance of their Greenwich rep season. This is Shakespeare's Lear - the character's title dropped because here Lear is a woman. Jennifer Shakesby is the monarch who divides her kingdom between her daughters, only to find that their gratitude isn't quite what she expected, and once you've given away all your power the respect suddenly disappears as well. Ricky Dukes' production uses a heavily edited version of the text - the Fool has been excised completely - but has changed few of the gender pronouns: Lear is referred to as "she" and "mother," but her title remains "King" and she is still addressed as "sir." Of course post-Battlestar Galactica that's a perfectly acceptable form of address.
Dukes' costume designs emphasize the military aspect of the story, with most of the male cast in dress uniforms from roughly the first half of the 20th Century, and Lear herself looking like a striking Boadicea figure. And though there's a lot that's good about the production, this warlike figure left me with a problem that bled through the whole of the play and was never really resolved: The conceit of Lear as a woman works perfectly, but Shakesby is far too young and powerful.
Lear's protestation of her great age is done with a bit of a nod and a wink but it doesn't explain why she abdicates so young, and the assembled cast around her don't even react to the news. I was hoping Dukes might have implied a different motive, such as hints of her coming madness having already shown themselves, but Shakesby is a woman clearly in control right up until she's cast out. When Cordelia later asks "Was this a face / To be exposed against the warring winds?" I couldn't help thinking "Yes, and she'd have chewed them up and spat them out again."
Where Dukes continues to be strong is in the visuals, helped here in particular by Rachel Smith's lighting and a hell of a lot of dry ice there's many a striking tableau - such as the return of Harper James's Edgar in his Poor Tom guise, coated head to toe in blood and caught fleetingly in torchlight like a horror movie monster. As with the companion piece though, the background slo-mo from the supporting cast is not a good look.
While I applaud anything that bucks the recent trend of 3hr-plus Shakespeares, the speed of this Lear is also a problem. There's a lot cut, not always logically (we see Edgar lead his father to Dover, but not what happens there) and it means a lot is frustratingly unexplored (a female Lear sets up an interesting idea of an attraction to Danny Solomon's disguised Kent, but the idea is pretty much dropped.) Apparently this repertory season had a very short rehearsal period and the results are impressive given those constraints; but it does mean that the end result is full of the sparks of good ideas, the show leaving me wanting to see its strengths developed but ultimately unsatisfied. And, as with other young companies like The Faction, I couldn't help thinking Lazarus might benefit from trying to recruit some over-50s for their ensemble in future.
Lear by William Shakespeare has now ended its run at Greenwich Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.