When you know it’s a great play and when you’ve already seen over twenty productions of it you can sometimes feel reluctant about seeing yet another production, particularly if you have memories, as I do, of wonderful things you have already seen.
Tread the Boards Company is doing its double act again this spring – two Shakespeare plays done by the same company, playing in repertoire. King Lear is the first, directed by John-Robert Partridge. Much Ado About Nothing is following next week.
It’s a wonderful coincidence that Kunene and the King, a play where a dying actor has the chance of his last role as King Lear, is playing at the Swan Theatre at the same time as King Lear is playing at the RSC. If you don’t know King Lear back to front you need to see it. If you don’t know Kunene you have to go to the RSC after you have been to The Attic.
Because John-Robert Partridge’s production is played with eleven actors there is a great deal of doubling. Right from the opening Robert Moore impresses with his presence as the King of France, impresses again as Edgar and then wows us with his very physical and often lightning speed Poor Tom. Matilda Bott is a beautiful Cordelia played with apparent simplicity and a vigorous Fool. I’ve been to lots of productions where it’s not easy to remember which daughter is Goneril and which Regan. Not so here. Kate Gee Finch’s lively sinuous Regan, all over her husband Cornwall when occasion allows, is contrasted by Alexandra Whitworth’s steely Goneril, stuck in a loveless marriage to the delightfully wimpy Albany . Joe Deverell-Smith differentiates his roles splendidly and is the best Doctor I have seen. Pete Meredith is chilling as the villainous Edmund.
The revelation is Philip Leach as Lear. The hardest thing an actor has to do is to look as if there is no acting. It takes tremendous skill and control and Leach does it perfectly. We never quite know why Lear does and says what he does. He’s always in the moment. It’s a most impressive performance.
Those who know the play well will enjoy some splendid touches – Regan putting on Lear’s crown once he has cast it aside, Albany’s rather insipid milky tenderness, the Fool and Kent (Philip Jennings) as attentive but unobtrusive onlookers in the storm scene, the stunning end to the first half where Partridge takes away the metaphor from Act V’s ‘And my poor fool is hanged’, the way Georgia Kelly is used as Oswald and other servants as a thread which binds the whole play together, the Fool’s fear of lightning.
Rarely has the way Lear makes the transition between the stale court and its stuffy characters and the transformative power of nature shown by Poor Tom in the storm been so clear.
Partridge made me think again about different manifestations of madness and the ways in which image, metaphor, symbol and reality collide. I loved it.