This ambitious new production of King Lear, directed by Neil Mathieson, is bringing live Shakespeare to new audiences across our region. It started tonight and runs until Saturday at the Bournemouth Little Theatre in Winton but then goes on tour to QE School near Wimborne on the 1st November, then Ringwood (4th), Totton (7th), New Milton (9th), Boscombe (10th-11th), Bournemouth School for Girls (14th-15th) and Lytchett Minster (18th).
I wondered how a team of mostly familiar players and crew from Brownsea Open Air Theatre could condense this large scale and rather long play into two hours to perform on the small stage – the answer lies in some mostly transparent cuts, a minimal folding set, a small but versatile cast and modern-day costume.
The weighty role of the old king is expertly handled by Tim Fearon, whom some will remember playing Richard III on Brownsea in 2019. His Lear is rather shouty – perhaps too much so – in the first Act but the descent into despair and madness in Act II is well handled with quieter tones and much pathos.
Lauren Killham couples the small part of the exiled third daughter, Cordelia, with the much meatier, but traditionally male, part of the king’s fool. There are probably whole theses written about the role of the fool or jester in Shakespeare’s plays and this one is one of the most problematic. I still don’t understand the relationship between this fool and the king or between this fool and the other characters, but it is interesting to watch this interpretation.
Credit must go to John Billington’s portrayal as the loyal Earl of Gloucester who is betrayed by his illegitimate son, Edmund. He really comes into his own after an unspeakable act of cruelty (which gave me nightmares in my younger days) leaves him in despair, crawling on the heath seeking to end his own life.
Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund attracts our sympathies at the start – but that soon changes. The pantomime asides to the audience as he outlines his wicked schemes are actually in the script, but Ant Henson brings the part to life convincingly. Brian Woolton contrasts as the maligned but legitimate son Edgar and his alter-ego, mad Tom o’ Bedlam, evoking great pathos as he cares for his despairing father. Some will remember Brian on stage in just his underwear as Timon of Athens – he does it again here.
When I read the play, I didn’t perceive the part of Oswald as being particularly odious, so it is good to see Barry Gray making him so – explaining why such antipathy exists between him and the Earl of Kent, a role deftly handled here by Chaz Davenport. Top marks here and elsewhere in the production for the fight choreography (uncredited).
More mostly familiar faces fill the remining roles as Lear’s scheming and ungrateful other daughters and their husbands. These actors are all experienced Shakespearean performers and perform these roles well.
Lear’s retinue of 100 knights, plus miscellaneous servants, gentlemen, and the British and French armies is represented by just 4 supporting cast. I like the use of the “body armour”, with the varying flags indicating which faction they represent. The sound and lighting of storm, sea and battle are well handled and atmospheric throughout.
There is no doubt that this is not a cheerful play, and the second act is particularly harrowing, but this cast and production team make a good job of presenting it and the enthusiastic opening night audience seem to appreciate it. At only £12 and £8 for concessions it is accessible to most people – even in these straitened times – and the fact that it will be coming to a venue near you makes it even more so. King Lear is not a play that most amateur societies would have the experience or skills to put on and it is rarely seen in the provinces – so treat yourself to a ticket and get out to support this excellent production. 50% of the profits go to local children’s hospice charity Julia’s House.
I don’t usually plug the programme document but this one contains lots of interesting information about the play, its history and sources, as well as a 10-point guide illustrating the process of getting a play from page to stage.
Further details of the venues and performances are available here: https://www.kinglearplay.co.uk from where you can also book your tickets.