Saturday 7 June 2014


Union Theatre, London


By William Shakespeare
Directed by Phil Willmott

Richard Derrington as the eyeless Gloucester

‘Tis the the season to re-interpret the bard. As a trimmed down Hamlet plays out in Hammersmith, so Phil Willmott’s Lear, precociously billed as “by William Shakespeare”, opens at the Union Theatre. This should be an innovative production as Willmott has deliberately removed “King” from the play’s title - his ageing monarch is a woman and if he had sought to leave it at that, then Ursula Mohan’s performance in the title role might just have given the show the strength it needed. But while Willmott's bow is bent and drawn, his Lear falls far short of the mark. The director’s treatment of the text will not only appal scholars, it may also baffle newcomers. Even knowing the play well, the hashed denouements of Willmott's truncation of Act 5 are a ghastly confusion in this production.

Staged in three sections, the first two being promenade and the final seated, the audience enter to the opening scene being an elegant modern day soiree, during which Lear divides her kingdom. The promenade concept (on press night at least) stuttered and rather than stroll and mingle around the confines of the Union space, most of the audience clung to the walls, some nervously clutching drinks, portentously suggesting the air of a party that has yet to get going. It didn’t really work, though Lear’s addressing a promenader with “cry you mercy, I took you for a joint stool”, in the trial scene did make for an unexpected chuckle.

Mohan’s monarch is a creditable effort though she never truly reaches that air of tragic majesty that a good Lear should inspire. Her Fool (neat work from Joseph Taylor) is portrayed as an NHS carer/nurse and hence there is a suggestion that from the outset her mind has long been flawed, which detracts from the impact of her early rages and at the close, rarely has Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl” at Cordelia’s death been so unmoving. To those who know the play, when Lear typically mourns his daughter with “Her voice was ever soft,” that Willmott has then cut the following line “Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman” smacks of a conveniently sexist expediency in his editing. 

The post-modern touches are everywhere. From an act one “selfie” of Lear with her daughters, to Edgar shooting up with heroin after Edmund manipulatively tells him to flee, to Stephen Harakis' Cornwall chopping a line of cocaine before the (rather gloriously bloody) gouging of Gloucester's eyes. Snorts of charlie notwithstanding, Willmott chops too vigorously and rather than Kent being banished, in this version the trusted courtier is axed completely. This is a cut too far, for Kent’s noble devotion to the King should present a thread of reasoned morality in a world gone crazy.

Undoubtedly flawed, Lear is nonetheless still worth seeing. Not just for other directors to observe how not to stage a promenade piece, but for some fine acting too. Richard Derrington’s officious Gloucester nails the bumbling yet brave nobility of the adulterous Earl, whilst Rikki Lawton’s illegitimate Edmund is a plausible bastard of a bastard. There is a tad too much pantomime in all three sisters’ performances but if Willmott can temper that into the run, it will be to the show’s advantage.

Off-West End productions continue to represent a pulsing heart of the capital’s theatre scene and bravo to Willmott and co and to the Union’s Sasha Regan for having the guts to mount this version. Wear comfortable shoes and be pro-active in moving around. Gloucester may have stumbled when he saw but you won’t, it’s worth the walk.

Runs until 28th June

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