1623 Theatre’s latest production was one of their most ambitious to date: a one-act adaptation of King Lear followed by a new response play, Farrah Chaudhry’s Cordelia, with an accompanying set of workshops, talks and resources designed to link the play to dementia support and broader accessibility. On the evening I saw it, a huge and enthusiastic audience was crammed into every available space in Derby Theatre’s studio, testament to the company’s community engagement.
Ben Spiller’s Lear began the evening. David Henry, bearded and slumped in an armchair, snoozed while Sarah Gatford’s care home nurse arranged a blanket over him (Gatford went on, in a nice integration, to be the production’s BSL interpreter; I was delighted to see the interpreter used so fully in this production, even if I wish she had been positioned a little closer to the actors so it was possible to see both simultaneously). Lear’s care home room was an abstracted space, with a bed, door and chest of drawers hung at crazy angles from upstage beams, creating a disorienting space. Onto these pieces of furniture were projected Darius Powell’s distorted, fragmented digital images, the visual traces of Lear’s external experience and memory. In an evocation of advanced stages of dementia, the combination of screens and live experiences overstimulated Lear’s mind, causing him to react to things that no-one else could see.
The narrative took place in two overlapping timeframes. One strand saw the repeated visits of Cordelia (Gemma Paige North) to her father’s room. Sometimes she found him asleep, at other times keeled on the floor. Their conversation kept coming back to the same lines; his complaints about being taken out of the grave and about his untrue daughter; his slow recognition of Cordelia; his hope that they could sing as birds in a cage. As these visits progressed, though, his ability to recognise Cordelia diminished, and by her final visit she was forced to give his name herself and begin their shared singing (‘With a hey ho, the wind and the rain’). Cordelia bore her father’s outbursts and repetitions patiently and sadly, but her face lit up with joy when he latched onto their connection, and the pathos-laden final image was of her cradling him.
The second timeframe, performed by Henry in isolation, saw Lear’s memories of his life flashing before him, covering most of the primary plot of Shakespeare’s play. In these sequences, the daughters appeared on the three screens in distorted images (Samantha Hopkins and Victoria Brazier appeared only in pre-recorded material as Goneril and Regan). The most significant of these saw Lear put on a party hat and the daughters also appear with hats on as he asked them to tell him how much he loved them, waving the titles to his estate at them. As the daughters delivered their answers, the screen fragmented and blipped, catching and repeating key phrases that were meant to represent those lodged in Lear’s head; thus, Goneril’s ‘I love you more than words’, Regan’s ‘I love you all’ and, most importantly, Cordelia’s words being twisted out of context to emphasise the ‘nothing’, ‘half’ and ‘I love you …. less’. In picking up on these phrases, the production made sense of Lear’s actions as a consequence of his decline, his distorted sensory inputs confusing his overall perspective.
As the production went on, the images of Goneril and Regan shifted to the centre and blurred together, their frustration with and anger against their father taking on the modern quality of adult daughters rejecting their father in his moment of need. Lear’s confusion extended to an evocation of the mad scene, implying him lost and wandering while lightning flashed, and an odd moment as he contemplated images of his three dogs, which merged into the faces of his daughters. Amid the disjointed architecture of his room and the traces of broken memories, Lear clung pathetically to whatever fixed point he could, including the cocker spaniel that stood, in his mind, for his youngest daughter.
The projected images of the dogs were revisited as a more literal painting in Cordelia. Eleanor Field’s ingenious design created a living room in Lear’s house, before he moved into the care home. The same furniture was now arranged in a more conventional manner, although somewhat bare. While not explicitly stated, the audience was encouraged to read Cordelia as taking place between the two time frames of Lear, after Lear’s abandonment by Goneril and Regan and immediately before moving into the care home seen in the earlier play. The shared set did a fabulous job of evoking the upended world of end-of-life care, with personal possessions scattered and regrouped in unfamiliar ways.
Chaudhry’s play filled in the blanks of the updated setting. Lear was an RAF veteran, Tory party member and man of some national standing (implicitly, a politician), but incapable of familial warmth or admitting wrongdoing. He had thrown Cordelia out years before. Cordelia, returning to help her father pack to move into his care home, was based in France but traveling to war zones to serve as a doctor; she resented her father’s prior and ongoing treatment of her, but was proud of her own life. As she helped him pack, Lear hid the key to the door in an attempt (he said) to get one more night in his house, but more obviously to keep her close to him, and the two thrashed out their issues with one another.
The play offered a great conceit and a lot of fine work from the cast and creative team, but was somewhat monotonous. Chaudhry’s script mostly flowed well but was at times stilted in its point-by-point walking through the feelings on both sides: he resented her caring for foreigners more than for him, he wanted her close, he felt unloved; she felt unappreciated, wanted to define her own life, wanted him to admit his past mistakes. Other than them airing their grievances there was actually precious little at stake; at one point during the play Cordelia discovered that he had relinquished his power of attorney to Goneril and Regan, but nothing more came of that. The play was also so heavily one-sided in its sympathies (Lear’s unpenitent admission that of course he wanted her to concentrate all her attentions on him rather than help foreigners stacked everything against him) that the conclusion – in which she walked out and left him alone to look at his belongings – was never in serious doubt. Louie Ingham’s unfussy direction, especially after the creative flair and technological integration of Lear, served the text adequately, but didn’t give the actors a huge amount to actually do beyond shift boxes from point to point.
These criticisms are not major, but seem to me to be a shame in relation to King Lear’s own stakes. When Cordelia returns from France, she is doing so under cover of war. The family reunion, the personal meeting of estranged father and daughter, is both contrasted with and elevated by the life and death stakes for Cordelia; here, the domestication of the narrative and the removal of the other sisters just meant that there wasn’t enough to play for beyond their relationship. By the time Cordelia returns, she doesn’t have the option of simply going back. The emphasis here on the Little England/looking after ourselves versus a broader and international altruism worked nicely in giving a strong reason for Cordelia to walk out of the door, but the production seemed uninterested in giving her an equally powerful reason to stay.
But while the story might have lacked in urgency, it succeeded in capturing something of the fraught experience of dealing with an ailing parent at a point when they don’t yet realise how ill they are. Henry was bluff, upright and indignant, refusing to budge an inch but also pleading desperately behind his façade for some love and attention. North, meanwhile, was convincingly conflicted, exhausted by the effort put in but yet unwilling to give up on her father. Her irritation felt earned, and plausibly built into her decision to leave.
The two plays worked extremely well as a pair, better perhaps than either individually. Lear benefitted from the specificity and emotional backstory of Cordelia; Cordelia from the cues to meaning embedded in the spectacular digital imagery of Lear. The two actors gave affecting performances in both roles, offering a non-linear story of decline, care and the mundanities of shared life experience, and together offered a melancholy take on these aspects of Shakespeare’s play.