Reviews Brighton Published 26 May 2013

King Lear

St Nicholas Rest Gardens ⋄ 23rd - 26th May 2013

The Globe on tour.

Catherine Love

The Globe’s summer tours, packing Shakespeare up in a transportable Elizabethan-style stage and planting productions in fields and parks around the country, are a project of inevitably mixed success. Even without the potential challenges posed by the elements, there are limitations of staging, of cast size, of the shifting outdoor surroundings. For some productions, these constraints prove to be a spur to creativity; putting As You Like It outside, for instance, offers the play its own immediate Forest of Arden, while the multi-role playing of the Globe’s 2011 production was used to enhance the chaotic comedy. The tragic scale of King Lear, however, proves to be slightly too far a stretch for this band of travelling players.

Confined to a cramped wooden stage and locating the action in an indeterminate period, with some costumes hinting at early- to mid-20th century but props that seem to situate events much earlier, Bill Buckhurst’s production has a confused, plucky charm. Avoiding any cumbersome efforts of interpretative relocation, the intention of the fuzzily defined temporality is perhaps to emphasise the celebrated timelessness of Shakespeare’s tragedy and its exploration of the human condition. This version certainly embraces its imposed limitations, finding surprising moments of comedy in the simplicity of the staging and the archly acknowledged need to double-up roles.

One of the production’s most successful uses of doubling is to pair up Cordelia and the Fool – not a new use of casting, but one that Buckhurst and actor Bethan Cullinane entirely justify. Cullinane lends a tender watchfulness to this Fool, suggesting the constant presence and care of Cordelia even after her estrangement from her father, placed in stark contrast with the abusive behaviour of her sisters. Perhaps most importantly, the two roles add vital colour to one another, offsetting the bland virtue of Cordelia and the potential tedium of the Fool’s relentless jesting.

Just as Cordelia can easily be painted as a bloodless saint, it’s always a challenge not to play the greedy, grasping Goneril and Regan like the two ugly stepsisters, an urge which this production only partly overcomes. While Shanaya Rafaat’s Regan never seems far away from an evil cackle, Ruth Everett plays Goneril with chilling, calculated poise. There’s no doubt that she’s a monster, but she would never dare to let it show, other than perhaps in the lightest mocking raise of her eyebrows.

But it is in the epic moments of suffering and tragedy – the central storm, the final images of Lear as a battered, broken man – that this production really falters. While the ever-reliable British weather momentarily threatened to overshadow Shakespeare’s drama with a storm of its own on the night I attended, the storm on stage is homespun and underwhelming. Using the red curtain that is occasionally drawn across the front of the playing space, this scarlet fabric envelopes and buffets Lear as the concealed clash of percussion weakly evokes a thunderous downpour. It’s a striking and potentially beautiful image, suggesting the persecution unleashed on Lear by his own blood, but its execution can’t quite shake off a hint of amateurishness.

Joseph Marcell’s Lear, meanwhile, lacks the power to transcend the production’s other challenges. As he struts around his court and demands like a spoilt child to hear his daughters’ gilded proclamations of love, Marcell has all the regal vanity required to precede the king’s fall from grace, but when this violent tumble arrives it feels oddly cushioned. Even in the throes of despair, this king retains a vestige of royal vanity, ultimately robbing the tragedy of its gutting intensity. Lear’s fatal arrogance is evident enough, but we never fully hear the howl of his anguish.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

King Lear Show Info


Directed by Bill Buckhurst

Cast includes Oliver Boot, Bethan Cullinane, Ruth Everett, Joseph Marcell, Rawiri Paratene, Shanaya Rafaat, Matthew Romain, Dickon Tyrell

Link http://brightonfestival.org/

Running Time 2hrs 45mins (inc. interval)

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