(reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 25 October)
Performance can be a cruel goddess, demanding sacrifices of a high order. That’s the premise beyond Melvyn Bragg’s play, which he has compressed from its original two-act format into something altogether tauter for Stash Kirkbride’s production.
A famous actor, renowned for both stage and screen performances, is in New York to attempt what to the mature actor is the equivilent of Hamlet for a younger one. It is, however, in a multi-times-off-Broadway theatre with a cast not completely familiar with Shakespeare or his stylistic demands.
We are in the brother’s flat, not 24 hours before the first public performance. Robert (Louis Hilyer) has stage-fright (something which attacks seasoned actos more often than their doting public imagines). Alec (Peter Barrow) has to keep his brother from the bottle while coping with the demands of Jackie, a brash and bitchy television presenter (Rebecca Chapman).
Then there’s Louis’ estranged second wife Bett (Rebecca Aldred), who is also his agent. Not o mention Juliet (Nina Taylor), his daughter with a wagon-load of chips on her shoulder and a gang of drug-dealers uncomfortably close to her back. As Louis comes diasterously “off the wagon”, the likely drama of the first night is subsumed in the domestic ones.
Kirkbridge keeps the tension high, with Hilyer giving a finely controlled portrait of a man terrified by his own vulnerabilities – which include professional as well as personal ones. All three wmen are also good – Chapman with all claws on full display, Taylor offering a study in teenage confusions which rings very true and Aldred combining the hard-headed business realism with supressed desires and affections.
The setting by Matt Reeve allows for action withn the flat to take place on a platform backed by a photographic panorama and scenes otside it to be on the audience’s own level, ths drawing us into the action. Projections indicate each change of location. The still centre of all this is Barrow; Alec is a man who knows very well that he always has been in his brother’s shadow.
King Lear in New York runs at the Hostry, Norwich Cathdral until 29 October.