Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Phil Willmott
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
King Lear is not an easy play to like. At its heart is a character who elicits very little sympathy; he voluntarily gives away his kingdom to his daughters and is surprised when he becomes both obsolete and a burden. He rages and whines, heaped in self-pity, railing against the cruelty of his children, but lacks any attempt at self-realisation that could draw the audience to him. Yet it remains a favourite rôle among actors – Hamlet and Lear are the parts that bookend a career, and anyone worth their salt has attempted both.
The Union Theatre has made a number of bold decisions with its latest production, the first being to cast Ursula Mohan as a female Lear to see whether this ignites new aspects of the character, especially in examination of mother-daughter relationships. It certainly adds venom to the curses fired at Goneril and Regan, somehow wishing sterility on her daughter seems more severe in the mouth of a mother than a father. But ultimately, Shakespeare’s words are the same and having the rôle played by a woman makes little discernible difference.
What is exciting about this production, however, is the way director Phil Willmott has staged it. The Union likes to blur the boundaries between the viewer and the action, and this is cleverly managed here by having the audience stand for the first part of the play. The scenes move around the room, with actors standing among the crowd forcing you to walk with them as the story unfolds. This is not Shakespeare played at a lofty distance on a stage, but immediate and engaging. You become part of Lear’s retinue, so despised by his eldest daughters, always present and observing the political fall-out of Lear’s abdication.
This concept is brilliantly realised in the final section returning from the interval to find the previously bare room, now dominated by an enormous board table which the audience sits around. This acts as both a place to make decisions and, in an inspired twist, a stage which the actors climb onto to perform. This nicely emphasises how the consequences of Lear’s political decision taken at the beginning of the play around a board room table, are then played out on top of it. It has the added effect of making you complicit in the tragedies that ensue; as Lear’s retinue you stand around watching at the beginning, then sit back and allow these things to take place without intervening.
The acting overall is very good. Mohan does her best with a rather thankless part and brings considerable tenderness to Lear’s final moments. Rikki Lawton gives the best performance as the manipulative Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester determined to win the power and prestige he has been denied. In fact the subplot of Gloucester and his sons, destroyed by the whims of their royal masters, has always been the most nuanced and affecting part of this play, and is here portrayed with real anguish by Tom McCarron as Edgar and Richard Derrington as Gloucester, who both exhibit considerable range.
The National’s recent Lear directed by Sam Mendes was on a very grand scale, confronting the fate of nations, and man against the elements. The Union has wisely made this much more intimate, focusing on the core relationships of the play with great success. Although advertised as a woman’s take on Lear, that is a disservice to a production that is more exciting for its staging, and a chance to experience Shakespeare in a completely new way. Whether or not you sympathise with the character of Lear, the Union has produced an exciting and innovative version of this epic power struggle between generations, and regardless of the gender of the protagonist, given a new momentum to the staging of this classic play.
Photo: Scott Rylander | Runs until 28th June