King Lear at the New Theatre was an ambitious mess. Ambitious, in its patience-stretching 3-and-a-quarter hour length and its enormous ensemble (almost thirty bodies on stage); a mess, in direction that rendered the pace painfully slow and the blocking static.
The production was saved by Nick Gill as Lear. An unusually slight casting choice, Gill’s performance towered above the rest on stage. While the programme made much of wishing to explore dementia, this didn’t come across. Instead, Gill treated Lear as an unusually cruel and manipulative father, licking his lips and taking pleasure in his daughters’ discomfort. The opening scene was set up as a public performance, with the daughters and their husbands wearing clip mikes and facing the audience while Lear sat side-on to them. Lear’s vindictive control of his environment left everyone else unable to do anything other than dart sideways glances at one another, repressed and fearful. This high-concept scene worked nicely (though who exactly was being performed to?), but the idea was dropped for the rest of the production. What followed was Gill’s slow descent into madness, performed through an excess of emotion that screamed against his own repressive state. Holding his head, his hand twitching, Gill railed against the elements. Yet in his later scenes he embraced a tender, kinder tone. It was not entirely clear what he had learned (and frustratingly, his physicality became much younger in his madness), but the emotional shifts were finely realised, and his calm recognition of Kent in his final moments was particularly joyous.
Other performances struggled to match up. The difficulty here was that the play was being directed by Gus Herbert as if it was Titus Andronicus: stately, static scenes interrupted by shocking ultra-violence, and a cast directed to show IMPORT by SHOUTING. Sam Peake was the worst culprit as Gloucester – while his physical performance, unstable and tottering, was surprisingly good, his vocal performance saw him roar every single line in a deep, ‘old man’ voice rather than engaging with the nuances of the text. Shannon Smith was initially strong as Edmund but the performance became quickly self-indulgent, with eternal pauses left before lines causing scenes to drag for what felt like hours. Ollie Shortt gave a performance as Kent that was so careless of the text that few of his lines could be heard, his diffidence translating to inaudibilityand his physical performance towering but awkward, unsure of what to do with himself (contrasting with the bluff confidence of his words). And Ben Hollands was effectively superfluous as the Fool: a dapper, well-spoken commentator who seemed to come from an entirely different world and seemed present only to be beaten up by Lear, leaving him to abandon his king just before the interval.
The daughters were much better. Genevieve Cunnell played a heavily pregnant Goneril, allowing the curse of sterility to be particualrly cruel – though, in an ugly moment, this was exaggerated too far through Lear whipping her pregnant belly hard with his tie. Cunnell achieved some lovely nuance in the part, becoming the mature manager of events who had finally had too much. Her abuse at Lear’s hands rendered her sympathetic to a point, yet she stood for herself and was able to be suitably ruthless in her final rejection of him. However, a final schlocky ending that saw her grab a dagger and slit her own throat on stage was crass and unnecessary. Becca Jones frustratingly threw away almost all of her lines in a fast, staccato delivery designed to show her quick calculation, but again left the text inaudible; however, her physical performance was strong: manipulative, calm, with a constant quiet smirk. When she let loose, tearing Gloucester’s eye out and screaming with laughter, there was a great sense of a psychotic personality finally unleashed. Rachel Connolly similarly struggled with the text and clarity, but was an unusually strong Cordelia who responded beautifully to her father’s vulnerability, shaking with tears while retaining composure as she comforted Lear.
Among the smaller parts, there were some interesting choices. Niamh Caines was a more sympathetic Oswald than any I’ve seen, being beaten harshly by Lear and Kent and left sobbing and brutalised. Her smirks as Kent was stocked seemed out of keeping, and I wish the production had had the courage to pursue her victimhood further into her final attempt to take control over Edgar and Gloucester. Dave Porter was a very weak Cornwall, careless in speech and with no real sense of his character. Jake McGrath built up some strength as Albany, however, and unusually delivered the final lines.
While the performances were uneven, however, the real difficulty was in direction. The stage was bare apart from a crown design as Lear’s logo in this contemporary setting, so scene changes involved a full blackout and then re-raising of the lights, after which each set of characters walked onto the stage to their assigned place before beginning to act. The absolutely lack of fluidity between scenes was accentuated further by an arrangement of flats that meant groups exiting upstage had to queue to leave. Even worse, while the huge ensemble had been drafted in to play the knights, this led to the worst case of ‘1st Spearcarrier’ that I have ever seen on the stage. Scenes were populated by people standing impassively as background decoration to the action, not even pretending to react to the events on stage. This was most ridiculous in the main rejection scene, where Lear’s final line of knights became, during the course of the scene, Cornwall’s knights, with no acknowledgement by them or by others of the change in their allegiance. Even main characters forgot to react – during the final scene, as Lear howled and brought Cordelia on stage, everyone else stood around stock still, apparently embarrassed. The horrifically stagnant direction and blocking left the scenes utterly without energy, punctuated only by the moments of choreographed fights which were brutal, fast and effective in a way only student theatre (with its disregard for health and safety) can achieve.
This was a mess of a production with glimmers of insight, and far too slow and ponderous to be fully effective. Yet it showed ambition and, in the central performance at least, convinced me that a student CAN play Lear.