CentralDramaReviewShakespeareShakespeare 400

King Lear – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Michael Buffong

Reviewer: James Garrington

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and so it is almost inevitable that his works will be seen even more than usual. In particular, there seem to be an awful lot of Lears about, and alongside this production,there is another currently doing the rounds until the summer, closely followed by a hotly-anticipated new production at the RSC. To stand out from the crowd, a production will need to be something special.

This is a traditional production, with none of the gimmicks or tweaks that seem to be so prevalent in Shakespeare these days, dangerously walking the tightrope between traditional and dated. The set by Signe Beckmannis the first thing that strikes you – it’s stone walls and flaming torches, with layers of sloping discs serving to represent both castle rooms and heath. It allows the action to flow, but too often the cast find themselves standing in the circle represented on the stage, which gives everything a ‘samey’ sort of feel – not ideal when the audience needs to be kept engaged for three and a half hours. Lighting and effects work well, though – and although what is probably the most famous scene in the play, Lear’s “Blow, winds” and “hurricanoes”, is lacking anything in the way of wind, it is accompanied by a very effective thunderstorm complete with torrential rain and some very good thunder and lightning. In fact, there is effective lighting throughout, designed by Johanna Town.

Crucial to any production is the actor playing Lear, and Don Warrington gives a powerful performance. Starting as a regal – though flawed – figure, he manages the transformation well as he goes through disbelief into disillusionment and despair, and final realisation of who his real friends are. A lot is riding on how well the actor can manage the differences between monarch and old man, between lucidity and lunacy, and Warrington pretty much gets it – though a little more extreme in the less lucid moments would help the differentiation even more. His anguish in the final scene is apparent, though, and rounds off an overall solid performance well.

There are notable performances among the rest of the cast, too. Miltos Yerolemou makes a touching Fool, as the character who probably cares for the king most, and despite his role in court is a voice of sanity; while Fraser Ayres is a nicely scheming Edmund – one of many characters engaged in their own power struggle as the play progresses.

Philip Whitchurch gives a striking performance from the start as Gloucester, himself undergoing a journey that in some ways parallels that of Lear as he moves from strong courtier to blind old man, and undergoing his own last-minute epiphany. Meanwhile, Alfred Enoch’s well-judged Edgar provides his own version of – put-on – madness as his alter ego Poor Tom, a soulmate for the insane Lear and a caring presence for the blinded Gloucester.

Some of Michael Buffong’s directorial ideas and decisions seem misjudged, and some of the difficulties could have been prevented. Cast positioning on stage is fundamental, and scenes which are designed to shock should not cause amusement in the audience – perhaps a reflection of the lack of light and shade in the long production.

A good, solid production, though not without its flaws – many of which could have been avoided with a little more care and thought from the director – but it’s nowhere near special enough to be the ‘must-see’ Lear of 2016.

Runs until 28 May 2016 |Photo: Jonathan Keenan

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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