In Lear‘s Daughters, Footfall Theatre – an all-female Shakespeare company – give all of the play’s lines to Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia.
At times, these transpositions are sparky, for example Gloucester and Edmund’s lines as they tussle over Edmund’s forged plot-to-kill letter works well as an argument between Regan (Kimberley Jarvis) and Goneril (Charlotte Quinney) over one of Edmund’s love notes.
Throughout, Sophie Grant’s vocals (occasionally mingled with those of other cast members), suffuse the text like woody smoke. Her version of ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’ is completely beautiful, both as it is placed within this production and as a standalone piece.
There is a difference between Footfall’s production and pieces like Elaine Fenstein’s late 80s play (also called Lear‘s Daughters) which sought to mine King Lear for all the back-story it was worth, or Paula Vogel’s all-female, Desdemona: A Story About a Handkerchief which sharpens the character of Desdemona against the bluntstone of Shakespeare’s original text, giving her new lines and a raucous personality. For the first third at least, Footfall’s Lear‘s Daughters feels more of a happening than a play, and it is hard to pick out a new narrative thread from the motley of rejuggled dialogues. The production is a making-so of a state of affairs where women speak Shakespeare’s male characters’ lines, yes, but Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia’s personalities become swamped at times by the deluge of voices speaking through them.
There are always long, linear threads though, in the form of vertical ribbons on the walls, to which Christmas cards are clipped. The cast play well within this carefully evoked modern domestic interior, with its packet mince pies, Jarvis flicking through her horoscopes as Goneril tries to talk to her and the Fool singing over them all. This sense of a cooped-up family Christmas where everyone is being slightly obnoxious to each other comes over all funny games when the cranberry jelly is used to create Gloucester’s smashed eyeballs.
Though lacking the suspense of the ‘original’ in King Lear, this blinding scene is extremely affecting, thanks not least to Grant’s vocals. And the later suicide scenes do not interrupt the flow of the dialogue with a sense of sudden crisis, rather, Goneril (and Cordelia?) simply seem to find themselves doing it, as if everything they said before had been leading up naturally to this point.
The subversion of the domestic interior is a powerful touch in a production that is attentive to symbols. Lear takes the form of an empty wheelchair, largely ignored. When Cordelia (Olivia Emden) finally sits in it and covers herself with his blanket, it is a strong statement about her love for him. A scattered breeze at first, Lear‘s Daughters becomes a condensed, flurrying tempest with a keen eye.