Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Jonathan Miller
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
So…it seems Barrie Rutter (that’s Rutter to you and me), advocate of all things Yorkshire, Founder and Director of Northern Broadsides, and one of the hardest working actors in the industry, has reached this point in his career. Old enough to play Lear, young enough to still have the stamina to take it out on the road for four months.
In fact, Rutter’s first Lear, in 1999, came unexpectedly when he stepped into the hard-to-fill shoes of Brian Glover after Glover’s untimely death. This time, he says, it felt more like the right time – his time – to create one of the greatest, and most tragic of Shakespeare’s characters. Jonathan Miller thought so too. In fact, it was he that brought the idea to Rutter following their 2012 collaboration on Rutherford &Son. Now eighty, Miller doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and still demonstrates a powerfully sharp, straightforward take in his directorial style. No wonder he and Rutter found so much in common. Northern Broadsides don’t just bring the ‘northern accents’ that the non-northern press find so daring/charming (in the north we just don’t realise they have ‘accents’), they also bring something of the no-fuss, say-it-how-it-is attitude associated with anywhere north of Nottingham.
King Lear is no exception. This bold, often brutal, play needs no adornment. Miller keeps things simple in the extreme. Isabella Bywater’s design is barely there – and all the better for it. A raised platform with a simple metal structure framing the action. Guy Hoare’s lighting design is stark, sharp and effective. What Miller is concerned with here is the text – and the company deliver it with powerful unambiguity. This is not a very nice story, and these are not very nice people, but Miller’s directness draws out all of their humanity, even in the least likely individuals.
Nicola Sanderson (Regan) and Helen Sheals (Goneril) are the ultimate wicked sisters, dismissive of the younger Cordelia (Catherine Kinsella) but reserving their real spite for their ailing father. Along with Rutter, Sanderson and Sheals create a convincing picture of elder abuse, as Lear spirals into what looks here much more like dementia than madness, the lack of empathy is toe-curling yet horribly plausible. In real life these greedy harridans would probably come off OK, so it’s good that Shakespeare decrees their untimely end. We all need a bit of closure, even if it’s only in the theatre.
A great supporting cast keep the pace of the action up throughout. Fine Time Fontayne is a gloriously sharp-witted but pretty creepy fool, the opportunistic Edmund is brilliantly portrayed by Al Bollands, and John Branwell delivers a fine, stately performance as Gloucester, even when blinded, bloodied and staggering. But despite the fast pace, Miller delivers some glorious, almost frozen, visual moments. Branwell and Rutter, grizzled and bearded, and sporting Isabella Bywater’s traditional costumes, could have stepped straight out of a 17th-century portrait.
Northern Broadsides are often given credit for making Shakespeare more accessible, simplifying some of those hard-to-get-your-head-round bits that seem secondary to the plot. Here, Miller, Rutter and the cast make every moment – and every line – count, delivering a powerful story with refreshing clarity.
Runs until 9 May| Photo Nobby Clark