(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 20 June)
This Max Webster Royal & Derngate production of Shakespeare’s tragedy emphasises its bleakness. Designer Adrian Linford presents us with a bare stage, backed by a greying wall, a window-piece which barely illuminates the world outside and is as much a restriction as an egress.
The play begins with Cordelia (Beth Cooke), waiting her moment to shine. A chandelier is lowered, a throne materialises – and the court bustles in. The costumes are timeless ones, which means that guns and duelling pistols supplement knives and short swords. Yu either accept this blurring, or you don’t. It’s up to you.
Dominating the play is Michael Pennington, not yielding an inch as either the absolute monarch, or the abdicated one – feeling himself for the first time not to be in command of anyone. Or anything. He times Lear’s decay into dementia so subtly that one is scarcely conscious of when irritation with the king’s arbitraryways melts into compassion for the man.
All the other characters, given a central performance of this strength, are satellites. Tom McGovern’s no-nonsense Kent metamorphoses well from the blunt senior army officer into the equally outspoken but infinitely more relaxed man of the people. Joshua Elliott’s Fool is an intriguing mixture of acute wisdom and apparently pointless nonsense. He’s the dark side of the glass to Gavin Fowler’s poor Tom as the fugitive Edgar desperately seeks to claw a future from his bleak prospects.
If Cooke’s Cordelia comes across as a spirited as well as principled princess, Catherine Bailey’s domineering Goneril an Sally Scott’s deceptively uxorious and motherly Regan offer contrasting essays in unpleasant ambition. Shane Attwooll’s Cornwall at first seems to have the edge on Adrian Irvine’s more contained Albany, but this is shown to be yet another layer in the interlocking web of deception.
Scott Karim’s Edmund is a plausible villain, though his initial soliloquy seemed to portray a cavalier approach to the verse. As his father the Earl of Gloucester, Pip Donaghy gives a somewhat muted performance, so that his terrible torture by Cornwall for his temerity in scouring his king is a piece f stagecraft rather than something to horrify us.
King Lear continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 25 June with matinées on 23 and 25 June..