King Lear is the tragedy of all tragedies, madness, cruelty, defeat, murder and betrayal, to name just a few of its many grave themes. It is set in a background of total nihilism, paternal relations are despised, rulers are belittled, sanity is overturned and compassion is spurned as a fool’s weakness. The slow disintegration of a King’s mind sets the stage for palace intrigue as we witness the craving for power turn heartless children against their ineffectual parents.
The English Touring Theatre’s production fails to create the impression of political intrigue; the minimalist set of a bare stage, few props and photographic images of the moon and earth - creates a sense of poverty and barrenness, a kingdom hardly worth fighting for. This production makes ‘King Lear’ look like the story of two dysfunctional families who just happen to be in positions of power, rather than the dissolute corroding effects power can have upon families.
Timothy West’s Lear lacks majesty and awe and yet beautifully captures the vulnerability of the insane king. His outrage at Cordelia when she refuses to offer him endearing sentiments of affectionate love in return for a share of her father’s kingdom is more peevish than venomous, and his raving at the storm lacks wrath. However, as his mind slowly returns and he recognises his own insanity he looks broken and lost. When he is reconciled with Cordelia and says, “I fear I am not in my right state of mind” and then asks her to ‘forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.’ he looks the very image of frailty and regret. As good as West’s performance is at times, his Lear fails to convince. I felt I was watching an old man going senile rather than a king who had temporarily been besieged by lunacy.
Michael Cronin is mostly inaudible as Earl of Gloucester. I struggled to hear all his words, however he does have a strong stage presence.
The three sisters played by Jessica Turner, Catherine Kanter and Rachel Pickup, are disappointing in that they lack emotion. Coneril and Cordelia are far too prudish. Only Catherine Kanter as Regan seems able to enter into this insane world as she visibly delights in the sadistic acts of cruelty she instigates, but sadly this was the only emotion she seemed able to express.
Dominic Rickhards gives a cool suave performance as Edmund, the illegitimate son who claims his father’s earldom. He schemes his way to power with quiet subtlety and duplicitous intent. Nick Fletcher is lost in the role of Edgar, the son who rescues his father and defeats the evil Edmund. I would be less surprised if I witnessed a mouse devour a cat then I was in his show of bravado and heroism!
Stephen Unwin’s production brings to the forth the warmth and vulnerability of King Lear but lacks the passion and rage to make this tragedy sting.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "An impressive evening." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "This is a rich yet intricate performance.." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "...not only has extraordinary clarity, it also elicits from Timothy West... a performance of self-revealing vulnerability." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Unwin's production may ultimately lack the shuddering impact of a truly great Lear, but there are many unshowy moments that penetrate right to its heart." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Not one of the great Lears. Most of the time, it isn't even one of the good Lears. But it has the merit of being unpretentious."
External links to full reviews from popular press