FringeReview UK 2016
Max Webster’s mostly-uncut King Lear with unfussy deigns by Adrian Linford brings Michael Pennington, Gavin Fowler, and Joshua Eliot in an ATG tour from Royal Derngate and Northampton.
Royal Derngate and Northampton with ATG bring a King Lear that with Michael Pennington in the title role, does such things that are the terror of the earth.
This detailed, minimally-cut production runs at over three hours, yet Max Webster’s clarity and integrity of production shifts atmospheres from ominous quiet to hurricanos in a blink; we get a real storm for once unfrighted of itself counterpoised with a torture scene eliciting gasps.
Adrian Linford’s unfussy design complements this, he and Webster setting action in that comfortable period: a great Edwardian house, Lear an Edward VII with proto-flapper daughters (Cordelia preludes the drama flourishing a twelve-bore). It picks up a trope elsewhere, indeed Pennington might have blinked himself as Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale recently, so close the period. Here it’s identifiably British: resplendent uniforms sheer off the more to poor forked animals of the blasted heath.
From Pennington’s wobble of shrunken bombast, wheedling shafts of tenderness and ungovernable rage, Regan’s later jibe that ‘he hath ever but slenderly known himself’ falls true as he banishes rigid Cordelia – whose qualmy asides suggest a ritual inability to bend, so like her father. Lear thus banishes himself as his remaining daughters digest not just Cordelia’s portion of his donated kingdom, but Lear’s retinue and almost indeed Lear himself.
Yet Pennington’s Lear early on flinches, recalling the truth of Cordelia’s love; the second time starting at his own near-repetition of ‘nothing will come of nothing’. Self-recognition trembles emerging empathies, just as his wits fray.
All this because of Lear’s absurd tie-break, sisters declaring competitive love. Cordelia and loyal Kent (shrewd, sinewy, lovingly exasperated Tom McGovern) banished, the drama shuttlecocks the unthreading father ‘above fourscore neither more nor less’ between daughters, retinue shorn with his wits. There’s freshness in Pennington’s registering each betrayal, each cruelty and bewildering twinship of the ‘pelican daughters’, side-by-side and Lear’s self-hurling with Fool and disguised Kent into the storm.
That’s along with the subplot. Pennington’s joined by another standout, Gavin Fowler’s Edgar, betrayed by bastard brother Edmund (chippy Scott Karim) to a fondly credulous father, Gloucester. Edmund often garners laughs as he excites lust from two sisters (‘now the world stand up for bastards’), eclipsing Edgar. Here Fowler’s Edgar morphs from heedless swigging student to ‘Poor Tom’s a-cold’ filthy in loincloth joining ragged Lear and Fool, till he morphs, caring for blind Gloucester, to challenge Edmund. He’ll ultimately rule: Fowler makes us believe it. Rustic vowels in-between Duke and dunghill-dweller mostly ditched, Tom’s a wildly alliterative creature flinched with watchful hiding as he jibbers sense sheathed in a shivering register. Vocal authority is now rare and Fowler has it, along with the truth of his selves.
Joshua Eliot’s harmonium-playing Fool measures twitting Lear, courtiers, retinue. ‘Thou shoulds’t not have been old… before you were wise’ he beseeches Lear. Eliot convinces of a shadowing sorrow, for Cordelia perhaps (‘since my lady’s going into France the Fool hath much pined away’). But Eliot clowns bleakness; his quick soliloquy before exiting with Lear, Edgar and Kent shrouds an existential farewell.
After, Lear the understudy graduates to Fool. His first client’s blind Gloucester; the tenderness wrought between Pennington and Pip Donaghy is the reunion of the production, two consummate actors inter-animating fragility with a vigorous projection that never undermines it. Donaghy plays shaking straight-man to Pennington’s sovereign foolery, managing to laugh, embracing in tears. Pennington’s ‘I know thee well enough. Thy name is Gloucester’ wrings everything. The audience laugh too – it’s rare! – at Lear’s bitter ‘Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician…’
Superb, but the greatest is yet to come. First there’s fine work from rejuvenated Albany (Adrian Irvine) who finds wife Goneril (silken Catherine Bailey) planning his murder to bed Edmund, ferocious falling-out of sisters – Regan’s Sally Scott is consistently sexualised, even attempting to fellate her sister’s servant to obtain a letter. There’s no abuse or complicit incest as some productions suggest. Bailey and Scott embody material, sexual greed, and uniquely Regan’s sexual fertility – she kicks her child’s pram, just to prove she’s wicked perhaps. So Lear’s curse on childless Goneril bites more keenly, sets up sisterly differences that yawn. It’s convincing, as is Shane Attwool’s squirearchical, suddenly-violent Cornwall. This production multi-roles all fourteen cast; it’s a true ensemble, with scarcely a weak link.
It’s the moment of understated pathos as Lear enters then rips out ‘howl.. howl… howl’ in a torn animal cry that you realise how titanic this Lear is. The vocal truth that’s led to supporting this explosion is unparalleled in Lears I’ve seen. That Fowler’s Edgar too can unleash an epilogue of such painful volume sets the seal on the first Lear that’s inhabited my imagination and left nothing behind. Those youngest in this audience seeing Lear for the first time are lucky and unlucky: they may never see so much Lear again, nor live in him so long.