King Lear (Pleasance: 1 – 5 March ’16)

MacLeod Stephen as Poor Tom (Edgar) & Will Fairhead as Lear. Photos: Louise Spence.

MacLeod Stephen as Poor Tom (Edgar) & Will Fairhead as Lear.
Photos: Louise Spence.


Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

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.

Caroline Elms as Goneril & Oliver Huband as Edmund.

Caroline Elms as Goneril & Oliver Huband as Edmund.

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.


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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 March)

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‘Rent’ (Churchill Theatre: 10 – 14 February ’15)

“Meenan is on interstellar form. His lightning fast, fluid movements suggest he’d be the one to back in a 2-on-1 prize fight against Jackie Chan and Dame Edna.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

“Dove sono le Puccini?” The gondolier looked up excitedly, “le puttane?!” “Err… no mate. Le Puccini? Opera a palazzo.” The Venetian working-man seemed disappointed. “Non è così buono,” he muttered sadly as we glided off towards an intimate encounter with La bohème.

Italian Giacomo Puccini adapted the narrative from Frenchman Henri Murger’s vignettes about Paris’ bohemian denizens. A century after La bohème’s 1896 premiere in Turin, American Jonathan Larson’s rock musical reimagining opened on New York’s Broadway. From there Rent emerged for one of the longest, most commercially successful, runs in musical history. Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème have thus been around the block so many times, the Gondolier’s puttane might have seemed positively virginal by comparison.

It’s Christmas Eve in the East Village. It’s a time before hipsters. A filmmaker and a rock musician – two noble artists, both alike in poverty – are told by their ex-roommate, now their current landlord, that they must pay the back rent owed. Solemnly they refuse. Joe Christie (as filmmaker Mark) and Nitai Levi (as rock musician Roger) establish strong leads, demonstrating possession of the several narrative arcs, the prism through which Larson’s sketchy urban landscape emerges. Jonathan Ip as landlord Benny demonstrates a determined gravity that centres the action.

Rent’s cast of bohemian characters provide fertile ground for a company well-suited to clever character studies. As Tom Collins – the maverik, homosexual college professor – Benjamin Aluwihare stands out as one of those student performers you hope will graduate into the major league. It’s all the more impressive because he is sharing the stage, romance and tragedy with Scott Meenan (as Angel, Collins’ cross-dressing significant other).

Meenan is on interstellar form. His lightning fast, fluid movements suggest he’d be the one to back in a 2-on-1 prize fight against Jackie Chan and Dame Edna. Meenan is camp, courageous, charming and – above all – courteous – daring to share the limelight so as to shine more brightly.

Not since Lily Cade met India Summers has a sapphic combo been as hot as the pairing of Caroline Elms (as lesbian lawyer Joanne) and Roz Ford (as bisexual performance artist Maureen). Both have superb presence, a mastery of pace and comic timing. Together they’re an alchemy reminiscent of Candice Bergen in Murphy Brown, Carla Gugino in Spin City, or Moira Kelly in The West Wing.

If Rent was truly bohemian (rather than theatrical hand sanitizer) we might have seen Rachael Anderson tumbled into their heady mix in a ménage-à-hell-yeah. Anderson’s jaw dropping portrayal of erotic dancer Mimi slips the surly bonds of physicality, lifting this production into a godlike orbit, circling the clumsy trendiness of Lawson’s checklist re-rendering of La Belle Époque original.

Eilidh Bruce Bass’ costumes establish the production’s look and feel as high 90s – existing somewhere between when Fraiser stopped looking like Cheers, but before Friends stopped looking like Seinfeld. Her clever attention to detail provides a palette of subtle retrospection on the period, touching up where Rent’s oh-so earnest themes have faded. The costumes achieve the remarkable feat of blending with the set without being lost in it.

And it really is a brilliant set. The band are incorporated without being outsourced to a balcony or platform. The back lighting comes through grimy green industrial window panes, each one an individual tale of neglect underscoring the dramatic meaning rising from below. The ensemble draw the various levels together passing props up and down with never a fumble. The stage right lighting rig is part of the set. That tubular grey lattice – which in most productions needs to be blanked out by the mind’s eye – it’s hanging there, at an angle, bold as brass. Who’d have thunk it? Well Andrew McDivitt did and it’s why his set designs are worth the ticket price alone (and then some).

As musical theatre Rent is what it is from when it was. The songs aren’t especially catchy, the narrative arcs are a muddled rainbow, the characters are embalmed in worthy sentiment. Jonathan Larson’s tragic death on the opening night of his work in progress denied audiences the chance to see the tweaks and changes he might have made.

Still, it’s hard not to get excited when Footlight’s production time comes around. High professional standards abound, not least from the ensemble who supercharge everything with which they come into contact. First-timer Campbell Keith is first among equals for his infectious enthusiasm, commitment and drive.

For me, as an essentially sedentary being, watching this cast might be what a flightless penguin feels looking up at a flock of starlings – isn’t it marvellous! How do they co-ordinate like that? And what kind of fish do they catch in the sky?

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 10 February)

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