How best to reinvigorate a classic? On arrival to C Company’s production of King Lear we find the play’s familiar palatial settings replaced by a rehearsal room where actors deliver the script as if doing a table read. Making strange (there’s yoga mats, a buzzing radio and a boiling kettle), director Aoife Spillane-Hinks flirts with a contemporary staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
“Attend the lords of France and Burgundy!” repeats Lear (Jonathan White) with added authority, stirring the rest of the cast into more serious playing. From here it’s business as you’d expect. A kingdom is divided by a contest of compliments won by Lear’s daughters – the Machiavellian Goneril (Susan Bracken) and Regan (Maeve Fitzgerald). A third, Cordelia (Breffni Holahan), too honest to flatter, is banished.
Designed with school audiences in mind, Hinks and stage designer Hanna Bowe adventurously give the play a self-reflexive frame. Performers drift on and offstage, sent dressing through rails of contemporary garments that playfully nod to royal dress. For fatigued exam students, it’s a new take.
Those not read-up, however, might be frustrated to realise that a lot of context is presumed. Mapped by Brett Sullivan Santry’s ambitious dramaturgy, this production narrows the play’s focus onto its two families. The cuts, however, are missed.
The first scene, of instance, sees the Earl of Gloucester (Simon Coury) mock his illegitimate son Edmund (Jamie O’Neill). It’s effectively lost in the production’s beginnings as a half-hearted table read. This leaves Edmund’s vengeance, and his reasons for manipulating his brother Edgar (Mark Fitzgerald) to run away, seriously unexplained. O’Neill’s Edmund is detached from his rage.
Similarly, if White’s Lear doesn’t swell orchestral in his woe, it’s because there’s no conflict within the man. Without the aid of The Fool (in retrospect, a crucial character), Lear doesn’t really confront his arrogance. “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” he announces. The production seems convinced by that realisation.
It’s bad timing, then, that an antagonist is admirably mined for sympathetic meanings. When Maeve Fitzgerald’s Regan clumsily interrupts her father (“You are old!”), it feels like the only way for a guileless figure to articulate their frustration with an older order. Amongst her allies (O’Neill’s ungrounded Edmund; Bracken’s disappointingly restrained Goneril), Regan intriguingly becomes the play’s necessary evil.
The action isn’t spun as fresh as the contemporary form suggests but rigorous players such as Mark Fitzgerald’s Edgar still stand to be revelatory. “The weight of this sad time we most obey,” he says mournfully, a crack in his voice. It’s a rare moment of truth.
By the end, the play’s stripped of its tragedy like the actors of their costumes. What’s to be gained from a heartbroken Lear cradling not the body of Cordelia but her dress? Maybe to new younger audiences it suggests that theatre offers endless artifice. To those already in the know, it signals that the staging’s frame hasn’t been fully resolved; the play never left the rehearsal room.
King Lear is on until 4th February 2017 at the O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.