Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Anthony Shrubsall
Shakespeare’s King Lear is a sad and bleak play. An elderly Lear, perhaps not well, divides his kingdom among his children in exchange for fierce loyalty. The consequence of his behaviour leaves him homeless and destitute. This is the inspiration for Lear Alone, Shakespeare’s play presented in five online episodes (each one less than 15 minutes).
Actor Edmund Dehn and director Anthony Shrubsall, co-creators of theatre company And Tomorrow, have partnered with the homeless charity CRISIS to create a modern-day Lear filmed on location in London. Much like Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, exactly how CRISIS lends a helping hand to Dehn’s character is where fiction and reality cleverly merge in this powerful solo performance.
The format is really a play within a play. Dehn’s character is an older, more vulnerable actor, performing Lear while also struggling with his place in society. It faithfully follows Shakespeare’s story using only Lear’s dialogue as set down in the First Folio. Sharing a character’s viewpoint is a useful exercise in rehearsal but placing it front and centre as the conceit for this play builds impact. We listen to Lear’s story from his perspective and see the consequences of his actions experienced in real locations.
We meet Dehn living safely in a home (in fact this opening episode is filmed at Denville Hall, a care home for retired actors). As he begins to speak Lear’s lines, the handsome and rugged Dehn transforms into character, taking him on a personal odyssey around London. Dehn’s Lear is softly spoken with acute moments of harshness, reminding us of the power he once had. Underneath there is vulnerability. As Lear’s story unfolds, we do not see a monster so much as a man whose choices have led him adrift.
Director Anthony Shrubsall makes clever use of London monuments and spaces. Iconic theatres provide backdrops, riverbanks of the Thames and desolate underground walkways create a realistic world. Street art adds poignant humour and there is skilful use of Frank Dobson’s sculpture in front of the National Gallery.
Charles Teton’s cinematography delivers moments of stillness that capture feelings of isolation and loneliness. Oblique angles highlight textures of a harsh city, such as the cold steel of Hungerford Bridge or solid brick walls of an underpass.
Fractured families, neglect, and violence were likely reasons why Shakespeare’s play disappeared for nearly two centuries. In its place a (much later) rewritten version with a romanticised happy ending. But to alter the horror of this fiction is to ignore the real world. Poverty and destitution were widespread when Shakespeare was writing. It prevails today, and with Covid in particular, older people are struggling with homelessness. There is a moving moment in Shakespeare’s play where Lear notices a person in need; an epiphany that he has taken too little care of the poor and unprivileged. This moment is echoed in Lear Alone when Dehn and Shrubsall feature Westminster in the story, successfully calling out our government’s accountability.
All five episodes available here until 31 August 2021. Free to view but donations to CRISIS are encouraged