A few weeks into the new millennium, a theatre company made its debut at South Bristol’s Tobacco Factory with a production of King Lear which attracted audiences so small it almost closed within a few days of opening. Back then, the theatre itself was in its early days, and nobody had heard of newcomers Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. Then the reviews started coming out – in The Independent, in local arts magazine Venue, amongst others – and word got round that something special was going on south of the river. By the end of the ambitiously lengthy run you had to fight to get a ticket.
Since then, of course, SATTF has gone on to stage hugely popular seasons every year – well, almost every year: poor sales for 2006’s Titus Andronicus nearly bankrupted the company a second time – and become one of the success stories of Bristol theatre, with productions at London’s Barbican and co-productions with Bristol Old Vic. That’s largely due to a simple formula which is far more difficult to pull off than it looks: powerful, intimate productions without a gimmick in sight; meticulous attention to every nuance in the text; and strength-in- depth casting which means even minor roles spring to full three-dimensional life. And so now, to open the company’s thirteenth season, director Andrew Hilton returns to where SATTF began, re-exploring what’s arguably Shakespeare’s greatest metaphysical tragedy and, as he does so, deploying all the strengths for which his company has become known.
It begins straightforwardly enough, but almost immediately these familiar lines – ‘Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again’ et al – take on different shapes, different resonances. He might be dressed in fairly conventional Shakespearean garb, but John Shrapnel’s Lear is already sounding like one of those modern unctuous despots who (dis)grace press conferences with their talk of ‘tough decisions’. It makes the rage and then the madness – when it comes – all the more shocking, all the more effective as the flattering, game-playing world he’s constructed around himself rapidly crumbles and he’s left outdoors with the ‘nothings’ he’s previously been so anxious to condemn. Think Tony Blair or David Cameron suddenly finding themselves rinsing out coffee cups as part of a small-hours office cleaning franchise and you’re just about there.
Never once playing the sympathy card, Shrapnel holds on to Lear’s shattering delusions for as long as possible, and consequently succeeds in twisting lines of the ‘a man more sinned against than sinning’ variety like a knife: is he really more sinned against? And what the hell does that say about me if I think that he isn’t? It might sound like a strange way to put it, but this is a profoundly ethical performance, one which doesn’t merely illuminate Lear’s moral crisis, it encourages – but, crucially, doesn’t force – the audience to weigh up the values they themselves bring to bear in judging both the old king’s actions and the savage tragedy those actions unleash.
In precipitating that tragedy, Shrapnel’s more than aided and abetted by a cast whose similarly well-balanced, well-rounded performances extend from Paul Brendan’s brilliantly all-mouth-no-trousers Oswald and Byron Mondahl’s almost Jarman-esque Cornwall to Julia Hills’ waspishly ambitious Goneril, Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s only slightly more repressed but equally dangerous Regan and Jack Whittam’s casually cynical Edmund.
If the play’s ‘gang of four’ are all sharply observed portraits of the many varieties of triumphalist inhumanity, then their opposite numbers eek out the foundations of some kind of alternative community, with Simon Armstrong’s bluff Kent, Eleanor Yates’ perplexed and honest Cordelia and Christopher Bianchi’s nicely underplayed Fool circling round Christopher Staines’ shivering Edgar and Trevor Cooper’s avuncular and bloodily blinded Gloucester.
One of the great strength’s of Andrew Hilton’s direction, in fact, is its gathering of the entire Gloucester ‘sub-plot’ into the main sweep of the drama. Students and sixth-formers plagued with essay questions about the Lear and Gloucester double-plot would do well to see this production: any convenient symbolic parallels play second fiddle to the sheer dramatic impact of having two similar stories playing out in – and illuminating – such a thoroughly disjointed world.
To be sure, there’s little clue as to where or when all this is taking place (Cordelia and her cohorts return from France into an otherwise Jacobean world, dressed – unaccountably – in First World War-style garb), but, in a way, that’s the point. To mangle Edgar’s famous line: timelessness is all here, and as an interpretation of Shakespeare’s densest, bleakest and yet most vulnerably human tragedy, SATTF’s production is more radical in its apparent conventionality than many a highly conceptual ‘re-working’.