King Lear. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 23-04-15

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Barrie Rutter as Lear and Catherine Kinsella as Cordelia. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

King Lear is an astonishingly flexible play. It can be a great national tragedy set in a society which is deeply flawed or it can be an intimate family tragedy played out in a small space. It works to enormous effect either way when done well. It is the bleakest of the tragedies and while there is hope at the end you have to look pretty hard to find it. I had seen it played out on a grand stage in the National Theatre’s recent production so I was looking forward to seeing Northern Broadside’s production in our small local theatre. They are always very much at home in Scarborough and there was a full house waiting for them along with me.

It is obviously a very good idea to put Barrie Rutter, as Lear and the director Jonathan Miller in a rehearsal room together. His performance begins by being very familiar to those of us who know his strengths but by the final scene he has found an openness and a vulnerability which is not his natural territory and it was deeply impressive and moving to watch. Catherine Kinsella is also very moving as Cordelia. She is simply honest and good and her obvious worth points up the irrational, capricious nature of Lear’s decision, a terrible misjudgment which sets the plot in motion. You can see what she is thinking even when she is silent and I can give no greater compliment to any actor than that. I was also very impressed by Nicola Sanderson’s Regan. She had a very northern face, bitter and self satisfied, and I am haunted by her expressions as she stood centre stage watching the blinding of Gloucester taking place off stage down one of the voms. It takes a pretty special performance to carry that off and make you believe it is actually happening. Jos Vantyler gives a scene stealer of a performance as Oswald, up front but perfectly controlled, making a real person of someone who could easily be just a cypher. and Andrew Vincent made a fine Kent, full of natural dignity. The whole cast was, quite simply, without a weak link.

You can never have everything in a production of a Shakespearean tragedy and there are always gains and losses however you approach it, that’s what makes it worthwhile coming back again and again. I am not sure, for reasons that I don’t think were anything to do with Finetime Fontayne’s performance, which was stylish and precise, that this production managed to completely show the relationship between Lear and his fool. There has clearly been some very perceptive direction in the production as a whole from Jonathan Miller but I would like to have asked him about that.

I have probably been luckier with Lear than any other Shakespeare play over the years and I have seen some great ones. This was a worthy addition to my list.

As a postscript I need to add that there was a long break in the second half due to a medical emergency in the audience and I really wish that I could have seen the production again before writing.


King Lear. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 13-10-11

“They told me I was everything. It was a lie………………..”

Tim Piggott-Smith as Lear. Production still by Keith Pattison.

When Harley Granville Barker directed John Gielgud as Lear he told him “of course you are an ash and this part demands an oak but we’ll see what can be done”. Tim Piggott-Smith’s Lear at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is indisputably an oak. He is every inch the autocratic and egotistical king in the opening scene, so used to flattery and instant obedience that he has lost the ability to see when people are speaking to him with sincerity and good judgement. He is completely unable to recognise the genuine truth and subtlety of what Cordelia is saying when she refuses to join in with her sister’s empty flattery. It is clear that there is history here. This father has never been easy or loving and frankly those who have put up with him can’t wait to get their hands on power and have him under control. Lear on the other hand has no idea what a life changing decision he has made in passing on his kingdom. He is unable to imagine a life without power until it stares him in the face and those people who have only bowed down to him out of fear and duty no longer have to bend to his will. Love is all that he has left to rely on and he finds none, either in himself or others, until he is pushed to the end of his strength. Those who care about him are left to watch and wait as the terrible consequences of his folly play out. King Lear is Shakespeare’s bleakest play with little hope from any divine providence (as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport) and Lear is only able to learn about love by losing it, recognising it too late when he is finally at the end of his considerable strength. Never has Edgar’s final line resonated so strongly as it did here. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”.

Tim Piggott-Smith as Lear. Storm scene. Production still by Keith Pattison.

Tim Piggott-Smith gives a fine performance. The fact that we are shown Lear’s flaws so clearly makes his grieving over Cordelia’s body unbearably moving. He has fought on to the very end, needing to be pushed to the limits of his endurance before he is finally broken and able to see clearly. If only he had allowed himself to listen to the wisdom of those who loved him most, Kent, Cordelia and his fool, things could have been very different.

Olivia Morgan as Cordelia. Production still by Keith Pattison.

His daughters are very much chips off the old block. Goneril and Regan, played with great style and conviction by Neve McIntosh and Hedydd Dylan, are as egotistical and selfish as their father, only needing a push from the truly evil Edmund to push them over the edge and make them monsters. Olivia Morgan makes her stage debut as Cordelia and she is already a fine actress with great authority and integrity. She also has a beautiful speaking voice, “her voice was ever gentle sweet and low, an excellent thing in woman” and the memory of it brought a lump to my throat when Lear spoke that line over her body. I am confidently expecting great things of her.

Richard O'Callaghan as the Fool and Tim Piggott-Smith as Lear. Production still by Keith Pattison.

James Garnon as Edmund. Production still by Keith Pattison.

The fool is one of the most interesting characters in Shakespeare and Richard O’Callaghan an actor with a wealth of stage experience behind him, is fascinating to watch in the part. He knows his master all too well, having been with him for so long, and he can see exactly where things are headed right from the start. He does his best to warn, wearing Cordelia’s brooch as a badge of honour, while completely aware that it will be no use. Bernard Lloyd, Sam Crane and Tim Frances as Gloucester, Edgar and Kent also provide moving portraits of much needed goodness among the chaos. Edgar’s final speech provides a very slim glimmer of hope and Sam Crane seized it, allowing you to think that maybe, just maybe, he might make a better world. James Garnon is also excellent as Edmund, establishing a great rapport with the audience as he sets out his evil for us.

Iain Bachelor as Oswald. Production still by Keith Patttison.

Among the smaller parts I was very impressed with Iain Bachelor’s performance as Oswald, Goneril’s steward. He built up a very believable and loathsome portrait of a small minded man with ratlike cunning and there was a great silent moment between he and Edmund after he had watched Edmund kissing his mistress that had been well earned by his skills as an actor. In another life Oswald could probably have been Edmund, given the chance and he shows this perfectly.

The set is very well thought out, two sides of a forward tilting cube with a sloping tiled floor in front which turns to provide a climbing wall for Lear in the storm scene (great live sound effects there designed by Mic Pool) and poor Tom’s hovel. It does exactly what is needed without fuss or distraction and along with a giant white floating moon it provides a suitably monolithic backdrop to the tiny lives which are being torn apart on it.

I saw this production at a matinee with a lot of young people who were all completely transfixed. You could have heard a pin drop throughout and there were cheers at the end. I can’t think of a better tribute.

All images copyright Keith Pattison and used by kind permission of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

King Lear. Donmar Warehouse. 13-01-11

The Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear is quite an event. It sold out almost immediately and the man who passed me going up the stairs into the tiny auditorium two at a time announcing “I’m excited about this” was not the only one expecting something good. Thankfully we didn’t just get something good, we got something absolutely amazing, in a tiny space which allowed us to relish every detail.

I shall start with Lear himself, as without a great central performance of the part you might as well go home. Derek Jacobi insisted on waiting to play Lear until he was the right age and this was a brave decision on his part which has really paid off. Technically he is wonderful. It is a delicate reading of the part whether he is railing against the injustice of his treatment at the hands of his daughters, closing imaginary curtains quietly in his madness, screaming his agony at Cordelia’s death, enticing and stamping on a mouse which only exists inside his own head or clinging to his fool- the only person who he can trust to tell him the truth. No character in Shakespeare learns more thoroughly or as painfully as Lear that actions have consequences, he endures everything until he has nothing left to give and his strength is broken. That relationship with the fool is particularly moving in this production, and also utterly believable and the storm scene, where we are shown the storm inside Lear’s own head as well as out on the heath in a tour de force of a moment where great direction and fine acting come together, is unforgettable. Technically Derek Jacobi is flawless, every word is as clear as a bell whether it is screamed or whispered, and every motivation is clearly laid out for us. Watching his thought processes as he falls into an abyss of suffering which is both self inflicted and the result of the evil of those around him is painful and shot through with a sense of recognition for the audience. Lear is a deeply human story, exploring issues which all of us need to come to terms within our own lives and our own families, and it is by far the bleakest of the tragedies. The hope for the future, through Edgar, is there at the end but it feels like it is hanging by a thread. It is a performance with great heart which engages our sympathy for a deeply flawed old man who is trying to face up to the loss of his powers, both as a man and as a king. There have been just a few times over the years when I have felt privileged to be one of the relatively few people to see a great performance and this was one of them. To play Lear requires enormous range and experience and that doesn’t come early, or cheaply. Derek Jacobi has earned his place on a very short list of those who have done the part justice by a lifetime of preparation.

Of course he was not alone. Ron Cook was wonderful as the fool. Lear calls him boy, and it is clear that the two of them have been together since the time when that would have been an accurate description of the sardonic watchful middle aged man standing in front of us. Lear relies on him and he has always been there. His master knows the answer to all his best riddles from long practice and he knows his master well enough to see exactly what is coming. He continues to do the duty of a fool, someone licenced to tell the truth without punishment, aware that it will change nothing, until he finally breaks away, wiping off his make up and leaving his master alone, seeing that his master is going somewhere that he cannot follow.

The evil surrounding Lear, whether it is in the form of two of his beautiful daughters, Goneril and Regan (Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell) or the appalling Edmund (Alec Newman)  whose wolf like grin gave you no doubt what was in his mind even if Shakespeare hadn’t allowed him to tell you is horrifying. Alec Newman was both attractive and terrifying as Edmund, and it was his evil manipulation that turned Goneril and Regan from two rather selfish daughters, dealing with a difficult parent and looking out for the main chance, into the monsters which they became. The blinding of Gloucester had a gleeful bloodlust to it which was chilling and difficult to watch- as it should be. This was real evil, set in motion by someone who knew how to prey on weakness and persuade others to find the worst parts of themselves.

There is goodness there, thankfully, movingly portrayed in the form of Edgar and Kent, (Gwilym Lee and Michael Hadley) but for most of the play they also suffer and any happy ending they may have is bought at such cost that it almost ceases to be worth the name. Goodness is a difficult quality to portray but both of them were a welcome glimpse of a better world. Pippa Bennett-Warner as Cordelia, Lear’s third daughter whose refusal to join in with her father’s mind games of “who loves me most?” begins his decline, was gentle, beautiful and strong, and her performance made Lear’s grief at her death all the more heartbreaking. It was also a cry of despair that he had not recognised her worth until it was too late.

The production was beautifully staged in an empty space completely covered in weathered boards painted in brown white and black bark like patterns. Micheal Grandage’s good judgement and understanding of the play as director shone through everything without getting in the way of the characters, which is all that you could wish. Nothing jarred and nothing was overplayed.

I shall be astonished if I see anything better than this for a very long time. I have been lucky enough to see two great Lears already in John Wood and Robert Stephens. I never expected another. I wish Simon Russell-Beale all the luck in the world when he tackles it next year. I shall be there.