Wednesday 25 May 2016

King Lear (at Birmingham Rep) - Review

Birmingham Repertory Theatre


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Buffong

Don Warrington and Miltos Yerolemou

It’s a mark of a good Shakespeare production that, even when one knows the play well, the show reveals new depths and nuances to the text. So it is with Don Warrington whose Lear, now playing at the Birmingham Rep (for a ridiculously short 3 further days!) is up there with the best.

Director Michael Buffong chooses not to play fast and loose with the context. This is a pre-mediaeval setting, all animal skin drapes for royalty and heavy swordplay, mounted against Signe Beckmann’s simply effective staging and it works. No gimmickry here, the power of this production rests solely in the verse and its delivery.

At 65 Warrington is the perfect age to be a monarch who is planning his retirement and wanting to bestow his kingdom upon his three adult daughters. Warrington descends convincingly into the red mist of his rage at what he mistaken sees in Cordelia as a loveless insouciance – and then takes us on the most harrowing of journeys as we watch him realising his foolishness as age slowly saps his mental faculties.

Warrington’s handling of Lear’s big moments is masterful. His curse of sterility upon Rakie Ayola's Goneril is appropriately splenetic, yet where one can occasionally sympathise with his daughter at this point, here Warrington bestows his evil words with a justifiable credibility that is rarely, if ever witnessed.

The man gets better – His impotent rage, howling at Kent being placed in the stocks and subsequent, classic, plea to his daughters to “reason not the need” is heartbreaking. As Lear’s detachment from reason becomes more pronounced, Warrington’s cri de coeur at recognising his decline, “oh let me not be mad” touches us, in our modern ageing society increasingly challenged by dementia, with a touchingly relevant poignancy.

Warrington is surrounded by a fine company – In a revelatory performance Miltos Yerolemou’s Fool bestows a perceptive wisdom on this most intriguing of Shakespeare’s characters. The love between the monarch and his all-licensed fool is tangible (only heightened by the pathos of Lear’s penultimate words “and my poor fool is hanged” on Cordelia’s death) and the white slap that Buffong paints his Fool in, which miserably washes off in the storm scene, offers yet a further glimpse into the stripping back of human facades that had so easily convinced the King.

Of Lear’s daughters Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia offers the most rounded performance, however all three women are at times occasionally inaudible. This may be down to the staging/venue, however if there is an opportunity to fine tune this, it would make a very good play even better. Philip Whitchurch’s Gloucester however makes for a touching turn. The sub-plot of his deception by Fraser Ayre’s bastard of an Edmund is effective – with Whitchurch’s “I stumbled when I saw” offering powerful pathos.

Deceptively wicked, Norman Bowman brings a chilling menace to his all-too caledonian Cornwall. A truly malignant thug, his terrifying manner towards Gloucester is frightening even before he lays hands on his host. And credit too to Buffong for laying on a truly gruesome blinding, complete with tendril-strewn eyeballs bouncing off into the stalls. Shakespeare intended the scene as a horror show and, to mash up the reference points, Bowman duly delivers some Tarantino for the groundlings.

Above all, there is a heartbreaking majesty to this production and in this anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, and with more Lears on the way, Warrington sets the bar very high. His Lear is every inch a King.

Runs until 28th May
Photo credit: Jonathan Keenan

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