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I am a girl of simple tastes. Shakespearian tragedies are generally not included in them. My school days have slowly wheedled the love out of Shakespeare’s tragic plays. Romeo and Juliet, I studied to death. Othello was my A-Level hell and Hamlet? Well, “what a piece of work” is that play. As such, I had my reservations about The Dukes’ recent screening King Lear. I went in blind, knowing very little about this Shakespeare play. However, I was soon thrust into a tale of loyalty, deceit and human entanglements, leaving me possibly converted from my previous views.
Overall, the cast gave a thorough and captivating performance. The acting was convincing and consistent, with Sinéad Kusack’s Kent switching between accents effortlessly, and alongside Danny Web’s Gloucester producing an emotional and compelling presentation of dedication and loyalty. For me, two characters really stood out. Ian McKellen as Lear was (naturally) fantastic; seamlessly blending the portrayal of a once proud and respected King with a confused, dithery old man. This allowed him to fluctuate between comedy and solemnity with remarkable ease, making me genuinely laugh out loud at moments. James Corrigan’s Edmund was a surprise for me, as I never usually root for the villain. However, his comic arrogance and Corrigan’s use of gesture and intonation, mainly when contesting his immorality “this, base?”, gave the character an odd likability.
The depiction of the two sisters Regan (Kirsty Bushell) and Goneril (Claire Price), fell unfortunately short of the mark for me. Not due to the strength of the acting, but more with the choice of the portrayal. They were presented with an emptiness to them, black and white, with nothing further beyond the surface, and it felt as though they were not entirely fleshed out. For Regan in particular, I struggled to find any sort of sympathy or relatability. Her character instead appeared to rely on a lot of shouting, over-sexualisation and general craziness. (Like a lusty, less intimidating, less interesting Bellatrix LeStrange.) I think it would have benefited the performance to present her in a colder, more calculating manner and truly enforce the callousness of her actions. She blinded a guy and tried to off her Dad for being annoying, for goodness sake. Let the girl be evil properly.
The theatre that King Lear was performed in was unusually small, the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. This had been adapted with the addition of a large central walkway to involve the actors and audience with one another. McKellen discussed this choice of setting in a short video broadcasted before the play, suggesting the need for an immersive setting, for people to actually see the button mentioned in the line: “Pray you undo this button”. The intimacy of the setting used truly benefitted the experience of the viewer. It allowed the set to encompass the audience, involving them with the actors and with the tale; making short quips like McKellen’s amusing “you, stay there” to audience members as he briefly left the stage, more relaxed and more fluid.
My high school English teachers may find themselves feeling somewhat alarmed as I recommend this rendition of the Shakespearian tragedy, King Lear. Although slightly lengthy, the fusion of comedy, melancholy and complexity that is drawn out and presented by director Johnathan Munby and his wonderful actors, is honestly too good a performance to miss.
The Dukes Theatre will be showing two encore screenings of this NT Live production on 14th and 24th October. For further details, visit The Duke’s website at www.dukes-lancaster.org