Northern Broadsides Production
King Lear, Dir. Jonathan Miller
Rose Theatre, Kingston
Friday, 22 May, 2015
A review by Lucy Menon (Cardiff University alumna)
On the evening of Friday 22nd May 2015, I attended the Northern Broadsides’ production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.
One of the striking features of this production of King Lear was the Northern accents of the cast; these accents served to reinforce the concept of familial bonds for me as it seemed the ‘down-to-earth’ intonations in the lilt transgressed the idea of it being a royal family and made it instantly more familiar and heightened the tragedy in the sense that it could easily be your own family undergoing such tensions. However, through a very strong cast and able direction from Jonathan Miller, the elevated nature of the play was still maintained and a sense of inner, as well as political, conflict was achieved.
They made good use of a minimal set: a wooden frame, reminiscent of an extremely large curtain rail, complete with deep red velvet curtain wound over the top pole on the left side; wooden tables and benches that were not always present or moved around the stage for various scene changes. The wooden frame literally, as well as metaphorically, served to frame and focus the action on stage. It also took on a more active use when Edgar (Jack Wilkinson), disguised as Tom, would kiss and hold the wooden pole which served to emphasise his disconnection from the others in his own madness. He also took on an almost Jesus-like figure through his nakedness, wounds and crown of thorns and adopting positions with his arms and legs around the wooden frame that almost paralleled a crucifixion stance.
Barrie Rutter gave a convincing performance of the proud king dwindling to a dishevelled old man. Lear’s madness is seemingly a result of his grief and inner turmoil rather than genuine insanity and so seems even more tragic as it reinforces the idea that he is aware of his misdeeds and ill treatment of others and is a fact he will have to bear. When eventually reunited with Cordelia, their interaction is incredibly touching and he becomes the doting father that he should have been from the start: the poignancy is not lost on the audience who realise that this is all too late. In his attempts to reassure her when they are taken to prison we are made to realise what Lear himself realises: this is quite possibly the outcome of his own actions and in some way is responsible for the death of his dutiful daughter. His distress and disbelief at her demise in the concluding moments of the play are highly charged and when he asks for his clothes to be loosened the physical reaction to his emotional grief is made obvious as his heart is literally breaking.
The Fool’s (Fine Time Fontayne) make-up of white face paint with black crosses over his eyes, in a stereotypical clown fashion, gave him an eerie quality and made him appear quite sinister when coupled with the dark replies and dead-pan humour he provides. Appearing after Cordelia leaves and disappearing when she returns, the Fool serves as her stage presence by continually commenting upon Lear’s foolishness and so becoming a disturbing reminder for Lear of his errors.
The three sisters were well cast with Helen Sheals, Nicola Sanderson and Catherine Kinsella playing Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively. The strength of the bond between the elder siblings was accentuated when contrasted with those they appeared to share with their father, which did not hold even when slightly tested. The pair are also united through similar body language as well as facial expressions, such as eye-rolling, they both managed to convey their irritation and true feelings about their father which was often quite humorous (after all, who hasn’t been frustrated by an aging parent?) as well as being a source of tension within the play. However, the true spiteful and vicious nature of the sisters, as pointed out by Cordelia in the opening scenes, is still overwhelmingly clear; it is not only their behaviour towards their father that reveals this, it is also the way they lust after Edmund. Eventually, it is the duplicitous Edmund that is the catalyst for the severing of their sisterly affection for each other.
Edmund (Al Bollands) was a suitably suave and simpering son and suitor. Testimony to his ability, it was as though his actions could be understood even if they were horrifically executed and his lies were presented as easily believable. The gulling of Gloucester seems to be done with ease and this poor judgement upon Edgar, with the heavy price upon it, seems to be too hastily accepted. With a commanding stage presence, it was made obvious how the characters Edmund sought to embroil in his plots were easily deceived. His exchanges with Edgar show him at once to be similar to his brother in terms of strength and speech style but also very different as his loyalty lies ultimately to himself. An interesting parallel was that both Edgar and Edmund cut their own left palm at different points in the play; symbolically it is as though they are blood brothers and they are of the same flesh, which is indeed the very bone of contention between them.
Strangely, there seemed to be a greater amount of laughter elicited from the lines throughout the whole production than I had initially expected. Having previously only read the text and examined it as a “tragedy” it is often easy to miss how instances, even though poignant, can also be humorous. I feel that Jos Vantyler deserves a particular mention: his Oswald seemed to have the air of an 80s pop icon which worked wonderfully and he seemed very at home on the stage. His camp attitude while acting as go-between and shrinking from his skirmish with Kent (Andrew Vincent) disguised as a servant provided the audience with light relief and also established a depth to his character.
The blinding of Gloucester (John Branwell) was well enacted and occurred at the back of the stage in a blinding bright light and shrouded in smoke so the audience were given the impression of being close and present but without actually witnessing anything which made it unsettling and effective. In fact, the production used explicit violence minimally (even the fight between Edgar and Edmund at the end was presented in slow motion and more of a choreographed exchange of blows) and this served to enhance the atmosphere as the horror was certainly obvious but not protracted.
Indeed, overall, for this interpretation, words spoke more than actions: considering the power of the language in this play it meant an even greater emotional impact was able to be wrought when the emphasis was not necessarily placed on the visual and the Northern accents helped to establish a very heartfelt portrayal of the destruction of relationships.
You can still catch the production in Newcastle-under-Lyme until mid-June: