Review: King Lear at The Manchester Opera House

6. King Lear_Michael Pennington_c Marc Brenner-926

Let me lay my cards on the table now,  I’m a sucker for a bit of The Bard.  So with this being the 400th anniversary of his death, my cup runneth over. The beauty of Shakespeare, and the reason he’s lasted, are his timeless themes that resonate as loudly today as the day he put quill to paper.

So what is King Lear about?  What are its core themes?  I asked a teenager what they thought it was about, to which they replied, “It’s about some King who gets Alzheimer’s, gives his land away and everyone dies”.  I suppose they’re right.  Is it simply a story about one man’s decline into madness and nudity?  A story about the generation gap and how your children will inevitably try and kill you and each other?  A story of greed and eye gouging that Game Of Thrones would be proud of?  A story of a dysfunctional family that Jeremy Kyle can only dream of?  There is no right or wrong answer, they’re all right.  This particular production seemed to be a little unsure of which theme would take preference and as a result it felt somehow diluted.

The staging was simple but effective – the greyness did start to feel oppressive, although I’m sure that was exactly what they wanted us to feel.   I did find myself longing for a little more light especially when so much of the action took place upstage. The storm was a real highlight and executed very well.

Michael Pennington was an excellent Lear, his voice is like velvet and he knows exactly how to use it! The actors were performing without the aid of microphones and whilst I did struggle to hear some of the dialogue, I had no problems hearing Mr. Pennington.  He clearly understood the text and brought across the specificities and nuances of every line. His scenes with the blinded Gloucester were particularly moving.  His “Blow winds..” storm soliloquy was pitched perfectly and brought across all the symbolisms, the physical storm versus the storm in his mind, the political storm and the storm in his family.

Catherine Bailey (Goneril), Sally Scott (Regan) and Beth Cooke (Cordelia) all gave very strong, assured performances.  Joshua Elliott (Fool) gave a solid interpretation but unfortunately his squeezebox was a little louder than he was, and as such some of his lines were inaudible. Joshua is a newly graduated drama school student and I think he maybe one to keep an eye on for the future!  Gavin Fowler (Edgar) really comes into his own when disguised as the half naked and demonically possessed ‘Poor Tom’.  Scott Karim’s (Edmund) first soliloquy was excellent and promised much but he never really fulfilled the potential to be pure evil.

What does a touring company do when there are many roles to fill but only a small cast?  They double up and play multiple roles.  Some of the audience found this a little confusing. During my interval trip to the ladies I overheard this conversation, that I have to agree with…

“Why was Cordelia pushing the baby’s pram but nobody even acknowledged her?”

“That wasn’t Cordelia.”

“It definitely was.”

“It was the same actress playing a different part”

“Oh that’s making more sense now.  You’d have thought they could have stretched to a wig for her.”

I’m not a huge fan of gimmicks in Shakespeare, if it aint broke don’t try and fix it, so unless they add to a plot or character you can keep them as far as I’m concerned.  This neatly brings me to the baby that Regan clings to throughout much of the performance, I presume that it was there to highlight the curse Lear puts on Goneril and her barren womb but I just found it an unnecessary distraction.

Overall I felt slightly let down by this production. Not by the performance of Michael Pennington which was, by far, the standout element.  I’m fortunate enough to have seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Hamlet’ at The Barbican and this production left me feeling the same way I did then, that I’d seen a five star performance in a three star production.

King Lear is on until 4th June at The Manchester Opera House

To book tickets and for more information click HERE

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