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King Lear – Oxford Playhouse

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Max Webster

Reviewer: Fergus Morgan

Michael Pennington has played them all: Richard II, Henry V, Leontes, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Hamlet, you name it. Now, nearing 73, he is touring the UK as the title role in Max Webster’s King Lear. His Lear is remarkable in its range of emotion, descending from barrel-chested brashness into doddery, near-silent senility over two and a half hours. In an otherwise underwhelming production, his stark development is a distinct highlight.

At first, in Adrian Linford’s vaguely Edwardian design, Pennington stands resplendent and strong in ceremonial military get-up, looking like a warlike Emperor of India and chopping up a map of England with brutal efficiency. His demands of love from Goneril (Catherine Bailey), Regan (Sally Scott) and Cordelia (Beth Cooke) are the vain reassurances of an absent father, and his angry rejection of Cordelia is not for her lack of affection, but for her refusal to complement his comforting narrative.

His fall from grace is gradual. At first, unshackled from his duties, he happily stomps about Goneril’s estate in a large brown coat, joking and jesting with his band of cavorting country gents. Next, castigated by Goneril, he is gruff and indignant, viciously and vindictively wishing her barren. Then, receiving even shorter shrift at the hands of Regan, he is desperate, wheedling and pleading. Finally, he is majestic once more, furiously berating the wind with booming authority.

His words have no power now, though, and they shift from the commands of a respected monarch to the ugly, curse-filled babbling of a deluded old man with notable subtlety. He ends up totally senile, unmoving and stupefied in a wooden wheelchair, staring blankly at the ground, bereft of all cares at last, but bereft of all reason too. It’s a powerfully sculpted performance from a great classic actor.

Alongside him, Pip Donaghy is a similarly white-haired Gloucester, an old comrade overseas perhaps. His delivery varies haphazardly from the declamatory to the spontaneous, but he is at his most human when robbed of his eyes, doggedly seeking his own destruction. When he re-encounters his beloved Lear, the pair bury themselves in each other’s shoulder for consolation: two old men, surveying their hopeless position side by side in a cruel mockery of their former grandeur.

Scott Karim is a deliciously slippery Edmund, his deep, slightly ironic voice carrying an undercurrent of brutality beneath its clipped consonants. Gavin Fowler is a convincing Edgar, even if his transformation from wine-swilling waist-coated posho to babbling madman to lean freedom fighter is a little jerky.

Yet for all this, Webster’s production feels slightly underdeveloped, perhaps because he joined the project late, with cast and crew already assembled. Small touches – Cordelia opening the show by aiming a rifle into the stalls and firing for example – feel like arbitrary decoration to disguise a lack of substance underneath. Away from the performances mentioned above the cast are distinctly middle of the road. It’s a shame that Bailey and Scott do not offer more as the hard-hearted sisters, their reserve maybe a diluting direction, rather than a concentrating one.

Without Pennington’s classy central performance, this would be an unremarkable King Lear. As it is, he bears almost all upon his septuagenarian shoulders.

Runs until 30 April 2016 | Image:Marc Brenner

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