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.


Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 March)

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‘The Merchant of Venice’ (Assembly Roxy: 10 – 14 March’15)

Isobel Moulder as Portia and Will Fairhead as Bassanio.

Isobel Moulder as Portia and Will Fairhead as Bassanio.

“From the Rialto to Little Venice, W9,  is neat”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

Were Antonio at work today, this stacked play would be even trickier than it already is. He’d be talking about moving cargo rather than sailing ships. His wealth would be in metal boxes to Singapore or Mumbai rather than argosies from Venice. Nevertheless, reassuringly, his sound advice to Bassanio would be the same: “Go, presently inquire where money is”. That would send the enterprising lover to Shylock, who would have friends and funds in Frankfurt and away we go.
However, in this production when Shylock asks “What news from Germany?” (that’s Genoa back then), the context shifts mightily. For now we’re back to September 1939 and the news ain’t good. In fact if you’re Jewish it has been desperate. Director Rae Glasman finds a choice text in Prime Minister Chamberlain’s declaration of war:

   “Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”

That’s not Shakespeare but it works. For a start, which God: Christian or Jewish? Who is the more righteous: backscratching Bassanio, Jew-baiting Gratiano, or is it Antonio, who spits at Shylock in the street? Is it merciful or just to condemn Shylock to near ruin and to force him to convert? Portia, if always an unlikely victim, will find happiness in marriage. There is a happy and flimsy ending, which is why – I suppose – Glasman has that radio broadcast at the end of the play, to make her audience ask what exactly has prevailed here? Actually, I would have welcomed that mooring at the start. There’s the trouble with The Merchant of Venice; it goes all over the place: scenically, tonally, action-wise. Underwhelming and overwhelming.

From the Rialto to the City of London and to Little Venice, W9, is still neat. Portia’s Belmont is relocated to a country house, somewhere in the Chilterns, I guess. That is not a displacement too far but it looked hard to accommodate on the Roxy’s stage. I found the opening and drawing of the full length curtains in-between scenes more distracting than helpful and it’s a No-thank you to the squealing Downton maids at open-the-box time. The Glen Miller sound was melodious though and the cocktail cabinet and fetching evening wear did their elegant, idle, thing well enough.

As do Bassanio’s set of chaps. Portia (Isobel Moulder) sees them – and quite possibly all men – as “bragging Jacks” to be practised upon, which this marble-mouthed lot certainly deserve. She is also properly merciless in the court, where otherwise the languor of the club rooms seemed to have carried over. To supply Bassanio (Will Fairhead) with an Eton education and braces was presumably to allow him to stand nonchalantly, hands in pockets, between the caskets and to give him the manners, surely the compassion, to pick up Shylock’s yarmulke from the floor and to give it back.

Joe Shaw as Shylock with Kirsty Findlay as Jessica. Photos: Aliza Razel

Joe Shaw as Shylock with Kathryn Salmond as Tubal.
Photos: Aliza Razel

I could believe in Shylock (Joe Shaw) as a broken father. “My daughter is my flesh”, he says, and then Jessica abandons him – or is stolen from him. His hair should have been greyer but it is no surprise when – to take like for like – he would cut into a spent Antonio (Pedro Leandro) above his heart. There is real pain in that vengeful effort.

Kirsty Findlay as Jessica and Chaz Watson as Lucy Gobbo.

Kirsty Findlay as Jessica and Chaz Watson as Lucy Gobbo.

There are laughs in the features and antics of preposterous suitors, Arragon and Morocco, and in the crazy work of Lucy Gobbo (Chaz Watson) who sounds like the ‘wauling bagpipe’ of Shylock’s protest and who looks way too bad for Emil and the Detectives.

Rory McIvor as Lorenzo spoke the (blank) verse best and did Moonlight Serenade introduce his scene with Jessica near the close? I can’t recall. I do remember approving Bassanio’s choice of the lead casket, for ‘Thy plainness moves me more than eloquence’, which is where I stand on this production. It looks pretty and sounds attractive but its necessary centre of gravity is away, awry.


Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 10 March)

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