In this ‘Year of Lear’ the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company is not afraid. It should be though, for the ‘True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three daughters’ is a terrifying play. The voracious, great, Samuel Johnson could not stomach its last scenes and for near on 200 years it had to put up with the rewrite to end all rewrites. This is the tragedy that puts the brave into bravo.
And, first off, there were standing cheers at the curtain call. Will Fairhead’s performance as the foolhardy, maddening, mad, Lear deserved them. MacLeod Stephen acted out of his skin and nearly out of Poor Tom’s loincloth. Goneril (Caroline Elms) and Regan (Agnes Kenig) did that nasty, alluring thing with crystal diction on high heels and Cordelia (Marina Windsor) would break any father’s heart. Oliver Huband put the bad boy into whoreson, if that’s possible, and Tom Stuchfield made the worthy Earl of Kent positively exciting. Dual death by dagger thrust – Cornwall’s (Jordan Roberts-Laverty) and of the servant who dares protest at the blinding of Gloucester – is admirably dealt and nothing, nothing, disguises the naked brutality of the action that follows the ‘hideous rashness’ of Lear’s decision to dismember his kingdom. Cue the ‘What is Britain?’ line, topical then as now.
Still, forget history, or politics come to that, which is a professional undertaking. Henry Conklin directs a student production that bleaches affection and colour in favour of cold and dreadful suffering. The air drums relentlessly. Grey / blue, white and black predominate in a setting that may as well be called expressionist-noir. Only the all-licensed Fool is allowed to stand out but where, oh where, is the motley coat? A cheeky alpine hat is not enough support, even for the accomplished and confident Pedro Leandro. The wit and the timing worked well enough in the moment, prompting chuckles, but the effect was more often glib than penetrating. There was too much bleak distance between the king and his fool to reach across. Rid them of sympathy and these huge lines get the shakes:
Fool: Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
Lear: O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven;
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!
Actually, of all things, it was near indistinguishable costume not age or aging that looked inescapable. No one stoops and Edgar, as poor bare Tom, is unmissable. Lear, mad, should appear ‘fantastically dressed with wild flowers’. You are more likely to notice his pronounced twitching and swinging arm than his headband. Presumably, in a man of eighty plus, this is a sign of Parkinson’s but then it makes sense to join the destruction of Lear’s reason to a modern interpretation that trembles upon Alzheimer’s.
Set aside the difficulties of keeping the verse safe – and some of it is gunned down – Lear can still be a bewildering nightmare of a play, if not downright disorientating, which might put an audience alongside the blind Gloucester (Ben Schofield) who thinks that he has just thrown himself off the white cliffs of Dover when he’s just taken a tumble in a field. Incriminating letters fall out of pockets and the foul Edmund proves irresistible to both Goneril and Regan, which provoked some inopportune laughter. For some reason, at the herald’s command, ‘Sound’ [trumpet] you hear a bell. Swords are fencing foils and you are treated to some impressive attacks and parries.
At heart, of course, this is a production where that throwaway “Love you” at the end of a 21st century phone call meets Lear’s last howling entry with Cordelia dead in his arms. Conklin and cast have done their very best to get you back to 1606 when it really hurts.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 March)
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