Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Max Webster
It’s a funny quirk that so often in that most Everest of roles Lear, the garlanded actor at its centre gets upstaged by his supporting cast. Blame the genius of the bard, who has created a motley band of memorable supporting turns to populate his masterpiece. There is no fear of that in Michael Pennington’s attempt, the consummate Shakespearean takes the role in hand and scales that mountain. It is a defining moment in a career that has been dedicated to tackling the great classical roles.
He is helped by Max Webster’s under-cast and relatively straight take on the play, which allows its audience to chip away at everything but the work’s central performance; it hurts the play but shines a beacon on this ageing Lear driven mad by grief before coming to an understanding of the human condition on the blasted heaths.
There are three parts to the journey any actor playing Lear has to go through to conquer the part. The first, the dictator and unreasonable father is the section Pennington struggles with most. He plays those early scenes as he divides his kingdom up between his daughters and then gate-crashes their homes with a rowdy entourage, less as a terrifying all omnipotent dictator and more as a crotchety guest on Grumpy Old Men. It makes his daughters turn on him more brutal and less understandable, like turning on your favoured grandpa when he complains about local bus routes not being what they were. Then just as you start to tire of his Victor Meldrew snark, his voice cracks on ‘reason not the need’ and he takes us on to a higher nirvana of performance.
He has always been a performer that has traded on his open soul of sensitivity, beautiful voice and superb connection with the verse. All these attributes are to the fore here, as he tackles the storm on the heath, the fake trial in the hovel, his ‘madness’ is heartbreaking, a portrait of a man lost and confused, suffering from what we would now classify as dementia, and battered at the barbarities the world has thrown at him.
Then finally the beautiful simplicity of discovering the essentials of the world, as a man who has lost his mind and a man who has lost his sight sit together and talk and laugh, two old men who find a connection in grief and hopelessness, no wonder this play has been much compared to Beckett’s own existentialist howls.
He ends with his highest flourish, his tenor tearing the ‘howl, howl, howl’ of Act Five into a paean of grief, the likes of which can come across as schmaltz too often in the theatre but here turn even the hardest heart to tears. This is a performance that condenses a lifetime’s work in the classics, a master of his art spinning alchemy and discovering gold with the role.
There are a few other notable things outside of Pennington, including Pip Donaghy’s noble Gloucester, Joshua Elliot’s boyish Fool and Natasha Chivers brooding lighting that throws shafts of light down upon the prison-like set.
Runs until 11 June 2016 | Image:Marc Brenner