Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Karl Falconer
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
PurpleCoat Productions bring their King Lear tour of Ireland and the UK to a finale at Pollard Street’s Hope Mill Theatre as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. The bijou venue provides an intimate setting for Shakespeare’s bleakest major tragedy, and the play itself is trimmed accordingly, but almost all elements of the plot survive the surgery.
The aging King Lear rashly divides his kingdom between his three daughters according to their declarations of love for him. When his favourite youngest daughter, Cordelia, shuns the competition, she is disinherited, and her share divided between her sisters. The king plans to spend his leisurely retirement with each daughter in turn, but is an unwelcome guest, and is spurned by each sister in turn. Losing his wits he is reduced to living rough with a handful of loyal supporters and his jester, until reunited with his beloved Cordelia. This is not the cue for a happy ending of course, but the prelude to Cordelia’s brutal murder and Lear’s own death. The main sub-plot mirrors this with the rivalry between the Earl of Gloucester’s two sons, culminating in the on-stage removal of the Earl’s eyeballs.
Unlike many Fringe productions, this one does not fly by the seat of its pants. It has been honed during its travels, and arrives in Manchester fully-formed and well-rehearsed. There are no obvious fumbles of either lines or moves, and the ten-strong cast transition smoothly when called on to play multiple parts. The music and sound effects work well, but there are issues with the lighting balance which often leaves actors in deep shadow at the peripheries. Because of the constraints of the theatre, audience sight lines are also a problem at times, but probably inevitable.
Some performances are particularly good. Paul Carmichael is a vital presence and gives Lear’s rants their full quota of apoplexy. Stephen Michael Turner is a wonderfully malevolent Edmund, glorying in his villainy, and relishing his appeal that “God stand up for bastards.” That this is delivered in a broad Merseyside twang somehow gave it additional charge. Karl Falconer, who also produces and directs the piece, brings both nobility and pathos to the role of Gloucester, and also doubles as a darkly witty Fool.
Reducing this sprawling play to little more than two hours, one might expect some casualties to the subtleties of the drama, but the greater puzzle is the addition of further nuances. Lear has a “touchy-feely” relationship with his daughters which adds a creepily incestuous undercurrent. The king also has a drink problem, often sucking on his hip flask, and throwing up on stage at one point. The Fool is not allowed to mysteriously disappear from the action after Lear takes leave of his senses; instead the mad king stabs him with a garden tool.
There are other puzzling elements: Why is everyone barefoot (apart from Regan who sometimes wears bootees)? Why is Edmund snorting cocaine? (Yes we know he’s a bad lad, and it is in modern dress, but still.) Why does the servant wrap a protective arm around Goneril when she is upset? (I don’t know much about royal protocol but it did not look appropriate.) Why does Gloucester meekly submit to his blinding when no-one has bothered to tie him down?
A purist might also question the predominance of strong regional accents, and the casual attention, if not total disavowal, of the blank verse rhythms. Does this make the play more accessible? Or does the poetry of the original suffer as a result?
This play makes its royal progress from one set-piece coup-de-theatre to another: The competition between the sisters and the division of the kingdom; the storm scene in which Lear rages at the heavens; the blinding of Gloucester; Gloucester’s “fall” from the cliffs at Dover; the death of Cordelia in the arms of her father. The emotional climax is repeatedly cranked up.
But PurpleCoat’s failure to capitalise on this dramatic intensity is best illustrated by the storm scene in which Lear is reduced from a tyrannical monarch to a pitiful human wreck. In this, the storm is provided by two actors standing on a platform emptying watering cans onto the deranged king and squirting him with water pistols. No-one expects CGI, but this is the sublime reduced to the ridiculous.
Reviewed on 22 July 2016