Chris Eldon Lee review ‘KING LEAR’, presented by Here To There Theatre Company at Stokesay Court, Shropshire, until Sat 26th June – as part of the Ludlow Festival Fringe.
Theatre directors seem unable to resist ‘doing something’ with King Lear. I’ve seen him played by a woman, and set in a nursing home, or in Nazi Germany … with variable success. So, the news that this summer’s Ludlow Fringe production was going to be set in the 1980s, with a Top Of The Pops sound track, was a little concerning to say the least. But what I saw on stage last night was the most entertaining Lear I’ve ever had the pleasure to review.
Director Andrew Whittle’s stylish vision worked a treat.
In 80s Britain, Lear’s castle is a board room and the portioning out of his kingdom is a greedy, hostile takeover bid. John Deeth’s excellent King appears wearing a charcoal grey business suit with a Tony Blair tie, his hair in a bushy ponytail. The family arrive in power suits bulging with guns … the daughters in designer numbers, stilettos and lip gloss, speaking with Estuary accents.
In this production, Kent is a woman who has ‘made it’ to the inner court, as women in the 80s began to make it into the CEO’s office. In one of the many top-notch performances of the night, Alex Whitworth, in trouser suit and black secretarial glasses, issues the King’s assets with clear contempt, exasperated at her boss’s recklessness. The cross-casting is a bit of master stroke by Whittle, which pays rich dividends when Kent, as a woman, can show true love and affection to Lear and Cordelia in their final tragedy.
The fleecing of Lear becomes a Michael Jackson musical extravaganza with the cast – jokily choreographed by Cerys Lee-Jones – breaking out into ‘Thriller’ moves, while Kevin Dewsbury’s cheeky chappie Fool attempts a Moon Dance.
The hit song ‘Mad World’ accompanies Lear’s slide to insanity. Shakespeare’s words became tabloid headlines – “brothers divide” – and wads of money herald the financial crash to come. The 80s was the decade of the ‘numbers game’… and the wicked daughters attempt pare their father’s retinue of knights and soldiers to the bone. The redundancies are reminiscent of Thatcher’s disposable miners … and Edgar, Cordelia and even Lear himself are victims of callous, pitiless homelessness. The old King cast into the storm to struggle with his anorak zip is a nice, familiar touch.
Oh, yes! The 80s setting works exceptionally well. But the sincerity of Shakespeare’s storytelling is never subsumed. The sense of ‘loss’ still dominates the witty razzmatazz.
John Deeth’s Lear is a fully rounded, floundering man. He is tall, with flowing hair and bushy beard – imposing, yet warming. Deeth has the audience’s full sympathy as he fights against his waning powers. His regrets are those of a world-weary, foolishly fond old man, who knows he’s making mistakes and just can’t believe his daughters’ treachery. It’s a truly terrific, wonderfully-nuanced, performance by an actor pouring his heart out.
Likewise, Mark Topping’s Gloucester plays our heart strings. His blinding is a well manoeuvred ensemble event. In this wine bar world, a corkscrew does the trick and wine glasses display the trophies. It’s pretty convincing. You may wish to look away.
Having stupidly cast out his son, we see the blinded old man dicing with death as he tries to cross (I presume) the busy M20 to Dover. Topping’s scene with Lear as the two ageing friends coming to terms with their demise is, unexpectedly, one of the most sensitive passage of the play.
So, this Lear loses nothing in its time-shift … and gains so much comedy and clarity as a result.
It’s the mark of a good production when even the scene changes entertain. Morgan Rees-Davies’ camp Oswald (in a performance that is just to the left of that 80s icon Larry Grayson) leads the troop in furniture removal, whilst Kylie has us foot tapping. In a less convincing production, this would be unforgivably cheesy. In this one, it’s the topping on the Bistro Lasagne.
All in all, in the beautiful grounds of Stokesay Court, this is a night to remember.