Reviews DublinReviews Published 24 October 2016

Review: Lear at the Samuel Beckett Theatre

Samuel Beckett Theatre ⋄ 22nd - 24th October 2016

Turning the verbal into the physical: Chris McCormack reviews Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s interpretation of King Lear.

Chris McCormack
Irish Modern Dance Theatre perform Lear at the Samuel Beckett Theatre. Photo: Patrick Moore.

Irish Modern Dance Theatre perform Lear at the Samuel Beckett Theatre. Photo: Patrick Moore.

How best to divide the kingdom of Shakespeare’s Lear? During the misguided transfer of power from an egotistical father to two posturing daughters, the scheming Goneril begins her pitch: ”Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter”. A choreographer with nerve like John Scott, it appears, takes her at her word.

This adventurous dance theatre adaptation for Irish Modern Dance Theatre doesn’t stop shy of interpreting the verbal as physical. Fascinatingly, Lear is played by co-choreographer Valda Setterfield, a New York-based artist whose career boasts work with many at the vanguard of contemporary dance. Gender swapping isn’t the only alteration made; Goneril and her sisters, Regan and Cordelia, are played by male dancers from diverse backgrounds: Mufutau Yusuf (Nigeria), Ryan O’Neill (Northern Ireland) and Kevin Coquelard (France). Scott rightfully suspects that Lear’s territories are less important than the potential of Shakespeare’s tragedy to transcend borders and become universal.

Local politics are important nonetheless, and the three younger figures compete to show their affections in a razor-sharp mix of athleticism and classical manoeuvres: wall-to-wall sprints, elegant spins and high split-jumps. Yusuf’s Goneril brags technique, while O’Neill’s Regan is more guileless (and frustrated). If honest Cordelia is never to find the words Lear wants to hear, this production playfully acknowledges it by suggesting difficulties around Coquelard’s French accent, making the dancer depart in a huff.

This self-reflexivity is complemented by Eric Wurtz’s spare stage design, which has a back wall with pinned-up quotes from the script. Whether “like a vulture” or “from the waist they are centaurs”, Goneril and Regan grippingly charge and scowl with exceptional fury at Lear. Not only have they inherited a kingdom but also, seemingly, a dependent father. It’s a better approach than most to try and understand their rage.

The danger is where it comes across as bombastic. Performers shriek as they run on and offstage, using their squalls to help usher in the storm scene. You wonder in these moments if, literally, actions would instead speak louder than words.

More questionable is the postmodern rabbit hole the production seems to fall into, citing scholarship and stripping its set and characters. When O’Neill and Yusuf brutally butt heads over speaking the play’s final line, it feels like there might well be a less academic way to bring this generational conflict to a close.

Perhaps those high-sounding effects are a way for the audience to better appreciate the subtler touches. Setterfield is mesmerising as Lear, costumed as an artist in a paint-flaked coat. Elegantly fluttering her hands like the caged bird or gilded butterflies of Lear’s last vision for the future, she brings this work to a spellbinding close.

Lear is on at the Samuel Beckett Theatre until 24th October 2016. Click here for more details. 


Chris McCormack is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Lear at the Samuel Beckett Theatre Show Info

Produced by Irish Modern Dance Theatre

Choreography by John Scott and Valda Setterfield

Cast includes Valda Setterfield, Mufutau Yusuf, Ryan O'Neill, Kevin Coquelard



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.