As the lights went down, a steely-eyed Cordelia walked slowly to the front of the stage, raised a shotgun, and fired a resounding shot. This dramatic opening set the tone for this Royal and Derngate production of King Lear, directed by Max Webster, which rested heavily on themes of conflict and power.
Michael Pennington took on one of the most notorious roles in Shakespeare with mixed success. The opening scene, in which Lear attempts to divide up his kingdom between his three daughters, saw Pennington move from benevolent king to raging tyrant a little too quickly to be believable, and the famous ‘more sinned against than sinning’ speech occasionally verged on the melodramatic. However as the play went on, Pennington captured the fragility of a mind descending into madness with heartbreaking tenderness, and his grief at Cordelia’s death was wholly convincing.
The performances from the entire cast were generally assured. Beth Cooke captured Cordelia’s vulnerability, while Sally Scott and Catherine Bailey were ruthless and confident as Regan and Goneril respectively. Scott Karim played the villain Edmund with an Iago-like slipperiness, and the fool, played gleefully by Joshua Elliott, provided some much-needed relief in what is probably Shakespeare’s most relentlessly gloomy play. As is so often the case in Shakespeare, the fool is one of the most astute characters on stage, and Elliott cut through Lear’s narcissism and the daughters’ jealousy with panache.
Pip Donaghy was a satisfactory Gloucester, though at times his breakdown paralleled Lear’s a little too closely. That Gloucester is overshadowed somewhat by Lear is perhaps unavoidable, but I felt that Donaghy could have done more to distinguish his character from the king’s. However their embrace towards the end of the play, as they both mourned their physical and mental wounds, was touching.
The visual aspects of the play were also mixed in their effectiveness. It was never fully clear what time period director Max Webster was aiming to evoke, and this felt more like a jarring inconsistency rather than a convincing directorial choice. At times, the costumes seemed Elizabethan, but the presence of shotguns and even a vinyl record player brought the production into at least the late nineteenth century. The sound design was largely effective, with the menacing ring of a sword being drawn played between the more military scenes. The fight between Edgar and Edmund was accompanied by an almost Lord of the Rings style soundtrack, which, though powerful, did take the production into a more filmic realm which I didn’t feel was entirely warranted. The transition from the safety of the castle to the stormy moor was dramatic, with a flash of lightning and rain-like confetti cascading down onto the actors. However, the presence of the castle walls somewhat detracted from the sharp contrast between internal and external.
In the cliff scene, in which a disguised Edgar tricks his father, the (now blind) earl of Gloucester, into thinking that he is about to jump to his death, the staging was fairly noncommittal. This scene is notoriously difficult to create on stage, but the fall was so half-hearted that it provoked a ripple of laughter from the audience. Though Shakespeare possibly intended a kind of comic bathos at this point, one sensed that the laughter was largely down to the indifference of the staging.
And yet, despite the deficiencies, this was a generally gripping production. Once the second half was underway, with all its urgency and gruesomeness, the production seemed to come into its own. The eye-gouging scene was performed with such visceral reality that half of the audience were forced to turn away, and the fight scenes were executed with a mixture of violence and a dance-like grace which perfectly encapsulated the play’s continual contrast between relentless tragedy and tenderness. This production had its flaws, but its boldness made it difficult to forget.
For more productions at the Oxford Playhouse, please visit their website.