apocrypha last year, Phil Willmott's annual Shakespeare production at the Union returns to the canon, but with a twist: Having decided that, of his regular collaborators, Ursula Mohan was best equipped with the range to take on the part, he gives us a female Lear. Among a number of edits to the text, Willmott comes up with a slightly different context for the story. Mohan's Lear is now the recently-widowed Queen, assuming power herself but already displaying mental health problems which mean she has to distribute it elsewhere. The kingdom is divided between the two daughters who flattered her the most, while the third is disowned for her bluntness. But Lear adjusts badly to life without influence, and soon finds herself cast out to the elements with nothing.
A female Lear is something I've seen before and which I don't find too big a stretch (Shakespeare productions are constantly presented with high concepts in setting and context, to which a certain amount of leeway has to be allowed in terms of the text literally backing it up; so this gender reassignment of the lead doesn't ask for much more suspension of disbelief than any other inventive staging.)
And one thing this Lear has over the last gender-swapped one I saw is a queen who not only looks old enough to have grown-up daughters, but also gives us a clue as to why she might want to abdicate: Even in the cocktail-party of the opening scene there's indications that her mind's starting to slip, the Fool (Joseph Taylor) here becoming a nurse trying to get Lear to take her medication. And the full-on madness isn't just a result of betrayal by Goneril (Claire Jeater) and Regan (Felicity Duncan) and being cast out into the storm; Mohan's Lear is never quite in control of her mind again. It's effective, although it does take away the redemptive quality of Lear's madness. There is, though, a clever little callback to the play's opening that brings back some of the emotional kick to her reunion with Cordelia (Daisy Ward.)
Casting a female Lear could be seen as inventive enough but Willmott doesn't rest on his laurels. Perhaps he should have done so a bit, as his production is full of invention, but in fact so much so it proves distracting: There are two intervals, and each of the parts between them has a different staging. We start in promenade, the audience first serving as guests at the abdication party, later as the queen's rowdy gaggle of knights. The staging makes less sense for Edmund's (Rikki Lawton) behind-the-scenes intrigues, but as seating is quietly made available without the audience being directly led to it, it means the crowd slowly thins out as people's feet get tired, which is nicely on-theme for Lear's increasing isolation. When we return from the interval for the storm scene, we're in thrust, with seating right up against the walls. And for the third part things change again, and the audience is seated at the long table where the King of France (Alexander Morelli) is holding his council of war.
The other major textual change is cutting the role of Kent entirely, with many of his lines absorbed into the roles of the Fool and the Doctor (Simon Purse.) In fact the latter must have had a bit of a surprise at getting cast in a small role and then find it vastly expanded - he also gets to kill the Duke of Cornwall (Stephen Harakis) courtesy of a sly injection of poison. It's not the only syringe we see: The production echoes Rupert Goold's in making Edgar (Tom McCarron) a dumb jock who enters jogging around the stage, but I failed to see the logical link to then revealing him as an actual smackhead, as opposed to just pretending to be one in his Poor Tom guise.
What Willmott's clearly got is a wealth of ideas for dealing with the play. What he doesn't have is a clear overall vision that unites them all, and the result is a curate's egg of a production. Interesting in parts, but never really consistent enough to fluidly tell the story or engage the emotions like it should.
Lear by William Shakespeare is booking until the 28th of June at the Union Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including two intervals.