Image: Marc Brenner
It is true to say that the ultimate success or failure of any performance of King Lear hangs precariously on the ability of one man: the one chosen to play the titular role.
In this new production of Lear, we are not disappointed with recent Olivier award nominee, Michael Pennington, who reprises his celebrated performance of the aged king. Having recently paced angrily about the “great stage of fools” at the Shakespeare Center in New York, Pennington’s Lear seems like a culmination of a lifetime’s work – a pinnacle of a wonderful career on the stage.
There is always a worry that a Lear is cast who would either be too young to carry infirmity convincingly, or too old to have enough stamina for the gruelling demands of the role, but Pennington is perfect for the part. He appears genuinely doddery, and yet is equipped with enough endurance and energy to be able to carry it off with remarkable skill.
King Lear is the ultimate story of family tragedy and the destruction of a dynasty, brought about by the vanity of an old man who fails to discern the difference between the ugliness of counterfeit love from the gentle modesty of true loyalty, until it is too late.
Asking his three daughters to profess their love for him as he apportions out his kingdom to each of them, Lear elicits nothing but empty flattery from the self-serving Goneril and Regan, played by Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott, but his youngest daughter, Cordelia, played by Beth Cooke, cannot find the words to express her great love and loyalty for her father. His vanity becomes folly as he assumes her refusal to flatter him means she does not love him, and he disinherits her as a result.
Left with no kingdom, since he has passed it all on to Goneril and Regan, Lear only has his old friend Gloucester, played by Pip Donaghy, a Fool, two deceitful daughters and a pack of a hundred hangers-on for company. But then when Goneril coldly demands that he must reduce his retinue to stay with her, and when he is turned out of doors on a stormy night by the callous Regan too, Lear descends into madness as he realises what he has done.
With a wind machine and sound and lighting effects creating havoc onstage, Webster’s storm is epic in its intensity. From the opening scene to the tragic climax, Max Webster’s production is packed full of sound and fury, but it also allows for more introspection than many productions before it. Pennington’s Lear, although suitably loud and raging when his anger swells, is generally a softer and quieter Lear who comes across as a naive and foolish man, blinded to the true nature of his own daughters by his vain pride.
With an ensemble cast led by Pennington, there are some stand-out performances. Most notably, Joshua Elliot brings raw new talent to the portrayal of the Fool, a challenging part that he not only completely nails, but also manages to add a freshness to it that is rarely seen. Gavin Fowler, too, as Edgar, progresses from a carefree young man through feigned madness to mature protector with exceptional dexterity. And Bailey and Scott both degenerate horribly but perfectly towards the destructive jealousy that ultimately destroys them both. Unfortunately, however, Scott Karim’s portrayal of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, lacks a little in terms of credibility, but thankfully this is more than made up by the rest of the cast.
This production, however, truly belongs to Pennington, whose portrayal of the king who loses his mind is staggering in its mastery. He slips in and out of lucidity with alarming ease, and his quiet contemplations and momentary flashes of rage on the road to his ultimate downfall are exquisite in their execution. This truly is a performance not to be missed.
Four and a half stars
I saw King Lear at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Leicester on 5th April 2016
Originally written for http://www.thereviewshub.com and reproduced here with their permission