To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death, the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton gifted the public with a fantastic performance of King Lear that went beyond a simple revival of one the Bard’s most famous plays. The story of an ageing king dividing his kingdom among his three daughters, to be ultimately betrayed and driven to madness by his own family, was proposed to the public in fresh, provocative terms. An evening at the York Grand Opera House could not have been more exciting.
The stage setting, left uncovered by the curtains in the moments prior to the performance, delivered the first impact: dark, cold stone-and-steel walls, with a narrow opaque window in the background that accentuated, rather than relieved, the already claustrophobic mise-en-scène, welcomed the audience to their seats, anticipating that the night’s tale would not have a happy ending. Indeed, the almost total absence of colour and any sign of nature (if not for the barren tree suspended in a corner throughout the performance’s second half) perfectly reflected the darkness of the WWII years into which the action was set, and offered an interesting take on a play that concerns itself with the questioning of man’s true nature. On this sterile stage would unfold the story of a family torn apart by its very members, of an old man wrecked by the same nurturing love he had dispensed to his progeny.
Two-time Olivier Award nominee Michael Pennington offered a stunning interpretation of King Lear as a father racked by grief, rather than a tyrant consumed by anger and bent-double by revenge.
Two-time Olivier Award nominee Michael Pennington offered a stunning interpretation of King Lear as a father racked by grief, rather than a tyrant consumed by anger and bent-double by revenge. The rashness of his character, in multiple outbursts and extreme, seemingly unreasonable actions, was subtly presented as a bark of fake strength and authority around a truly fragile heart; his shoulders gradually hunching over in the course of the play, and the repeated instances in which his voice faded or cracked due to unshed tears each time he was betrayed by his daughters, depicted him as a man who, while seeking affection in his faded youth, is repaid with complete isolation and unkindness. Presenting Lear in such a sympathetic light made him into a much more relatable character, to the point that his inevitable descent into madness was heartbreaking. His madness was not angry or raving, but quiet and subdued: seemingly more lost than mad, it was in fact nearly impossible to not feel a lump forming in your throat as his soft weakness is exposed, first in his dialogue with Gloucester and later, even more powerfully, with his castaway daughter Cordelia. His metaphorical awakening to reason, and consequent wish to make amends for his conduct, thus gained a strikingly moving ethos that truly added depth to the character. Playing the role of the aging King Lear at the age of 72, neither too old to drag Cordelia’s dead body on stage while heartwrenchingly wailing nor too young to not appear small and fragile in the wheelchair he is put on in the final act, Pennington offered a compelling interpretation that came down even to the tiniest of details and motions.
Kent’s interpretation as a loyal yet confrontational lord presented a fresh take on a character which is usually depicted as more cool-minded and controlled than the king he serves. He made an explosive first impact with his own outburst against Lear’s unreasonable behaviour, which found continuation in his vehement abuse of Oswald and confrontation with Cornwall. A decisive guardian angel to Lear who works from the rear lines/in the backstage, his final exit truly befitted a character of his stature and nobility. Stating matter-of-factly that he has one last duty to fulfil and unceremoniously picking up a gun to then leave the stage in collected silence, made for a powerful exit that exemplified how genuine loyalty and nobility come with quietness and simplicity – similarly to Cordelia’s love for Lear and unlike Goneril and Regan’s fancy displays of fake, logorrheic displays of affection. Meaning, love, loyalty, have to be found in deeds, not in words.