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King Lear – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Michael Buffong

Reviewer: Katherine Kirwin

It is no surprise that this is one of many King Lear’s due to be produced in British theatre this year. King Lear remains relevant to a modern audience; watching a king split his kingdom as we sit around and debate ‘Brexit’, being at the mercy of nature and the elements as we bail out water from our flooded homes, watching a man rail against the inevitability of ageing as we continue to apply our anti-ageing creams in our youth-obsessed world.

Michael Buffong’s production of King Lear is firmly set in medieval times and has been stripped off any gloss or pomp; the stage is rough and bare, the lighting is aided and implied by flaming posts and candles, the clothes are furs and capes reminiscent of Game of Thrones. In this setting there is nowhere for the actors to hide as they tackle this Shakespearian behemoth (clocking in at 3hrs 30 with interval) lead at the helm by Don Warrington in the titular role.

Warrington provides a solid performance and transformation as Lear, moving from dominance to meek mildness. There are some lovely physical touches that are indicative of a dementia struggle, which accelerate as Lear becomes more lost in his own world. However, Warrington does not have the most natural delivery of the text and his rhythm sometimes disrupts the train of thoughts or renders moments unintelligible. Sadly, this reviewer could not discern the words spoken as Lear rails against the storm in the wilderness.

The remaining cast are strong and bold in their performances, and it is truly an ensemble piece. The Royal Exchange are nurturing a real talent in Pepter Lunkuse whose Cordelia was fizzing with youthful energy without hiding the character’s pure heart. Regan and Goneril, played by Debbie Korley and Rakie Ayola, gave greater edge, humanity and complexity to these ‘evil’ sisters. Alfred Enoch gives a magnetic performance as Edgar, providing a moral compass among the madness. This production has found some unlikely, yet welcome, moments of levity allowing the audience to laugh at the madness, the Fool (Miles Yerolemou) is truly funny as well as heartbreaking, and the goriness of the violence in the second half raised giggles as well as grimaces.

It is surprising how Shakespeare doesn’t age, his appeal still draws a full audience to the Royal Exchange and his words and plots can still reduce an audience to audible outbursts. It’s easy to lay the thanks at the door of the bard and forget that it is because a well-crafted production and convincing ensemble has led you to this greater appreciation of how theatre can transform words into a living, breathing experience.

Runs until 7 May, 2016 | Photo: Jonathan Keenan

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