Writer: Ben Benison
Director: Barrie Rutter
Designer: Kate Unwin
Lighting Designer: Aideen Malone
Composer: Eliza Carthy
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Barrie Rutter has played King Lear twice, very successfully – and now this is his second crack at Ben Benison’s modern Hull-based version of the story. The first performance at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre was in 2008, since when the play has not been staged until now. Two reasons for this immediately come to mind: the central role really is made for Rutter, until recently very busy at Northern Broadsides, and the play itself is a bit of an awkward fit stylistically, poised between symbolism and realism, the poetic and the down-to-earth. Mind you, you could say the same about King Lear.
Jack Lear is an aging trawler skipper, a man’s man cursed with only daughters (including the illegitimate ones scattered through Hull) who looks to give up the cares of the world and pass on his considerable possessions, the result of a lifetime of parsimony and hard work, to his three daughters in exchange for a comfortable home where he can be boss – and steer clear of the old people’s home. The first two daughters con him with false love, the third – his favourite – refuses to be dishonest. A future of drunkenness, madness and the home awaits him.
Ben Benison refuses to make things easy for himself, the producer and cast, and even the audience. It sometimes seems that soliloquy is his natural utterance: for instance, the play begins with an extended speech by Morgana, the eldest daughter, splendidly delivered by Nicola Sanderson, about an upbringing where they were treated as man-daughters. Benison’s use of blank verse is vivid and flexible and his clinching rhyming couplets have the true Shakespearean ring.
Clearly, a play of fewer than 100 minutes stage time lacks the subtlety of Shakespeare’s grand design and the narrative and character shifts tend to be jumpy. Also, a cast of five, consisting only of Lear, his daughters and an oleaginous and thoroughly corrupt Edmund, is made up entirely of characters who meet a sticky end before the final curtain of King Lear. Inevitably Benison makes changes, but the body count remains high and more swords are flourished than is common on Hessle Road. Despite Rutter’s more or less accurate comment in the programme that “no knowledge of Shakespeare is required”, the text is allusive, both in references and parallels – it must have been fun to write!
As Lear Barrie Rutter finds the right combination of naturalism and theatricality that the text demands, assertively bullying and yet fundamentally weak as he divides his possessions, roaringly out of control in the storm at sea that replaces madness on the moor and slyly Jack the Lad in his mind-enfeebled recollections of days that were.
Andy Cryer’s Edmund similarly crosses boundaries of style, confessing and confiding in the audience while charming the Misses Lear. His performance and Rutter’s direction of it are based on the awareness that several Shakespearean villains (not least Edmund) are comic turns as well as homicidal deceivers – and Cryer is very funny. Nicola Sanderson (Morgana) and Sarah Naughton (Freda) play equally effective games with the duality of the characters, including some nice work as affected nouveaux riches. Benison gives fewer opportunities to the Cordelia figure, Victoria, but Olivia Onyehara is always convincing.
Kate Unwin’s sail-and-nets set gives freedom to the action and, in combination with on-stage drumming and Aideen Malone’s lighting, frames Rutter’s raging at the storm dramatically. The main disappointment is Eliza Carthy’s music, shanty-style folk songs, not because of any lack of quality (far from it), but because there are simply not enough songs to reinforce the epic qualities of the staging.
Runs until February 2, 2019, then transfers to Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Image | Nobby Clark