Where am I? Fair daylight? I am mightily abused. I should ev’n die with pity to see another thus. I know not what to say.
King Lear Act 4 Scene 6
The Richmond Theatre is a Frank Matcham masterpiece that sits happily within the greater London area. It really is a gorgeous theatre, the seats are comfortable, the sight lines are good, the acoustics are excellent and the sense of theatricality there is very high. Happily, it is also staffed by warm and welcoming people who do their utmost to ensure that your time in their company in their theatre is as good as it can be.
In this, it is set apart from a number of other theatres in the greater London area.
Many productions tour to the Richmond Theatre and of those that do only a handful usually end up in or originate from the West End. It is, then, a good place to travel to see the kind of fare which tours the country, which entertains the regions and which employs actors and theatre creatives. Often what plays there is better than much the West End has to offer at any given time.
But not always.
Currently touring the UK is a production of King Lear which originated at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and which is directed by Max Webster. Webster did not start out to direct this play, but was a hasty replacement when Philip Franks, who cast it and assembled the creative team, was forced to step aside because of illness. Perhaps that explains the result, because this is not a production which seems to have a coherent focus, an overall creative vision, or a company all paddling in the same canoe in the same direction.
Rather, like Lear and the Fool in the raging storm, the cast seem battered and lost, almost overcome by their surroundings, unsure of their purpose and uneasy about what lies next.
This is not true of Michael Pennington who produces a Lear exactly as one would expect – the verse is well spoken, carefully enunciated, and threaded with pain and rage. He cuts a stern fatherly figure, and has no trouble with the capricious side of the ageing monarch’s character. He establishes good rapport with Joshua Elliott’s Fool and they have some splendid, touching moments together.
As the play progresses, Pennington opts for muddled confusion as the sign of Lear’s unraveling of the mind. While this is a canny option, especially given this cast, it does not permit a bravura performance. There are no instant changes of mood, sudden silent stops, brusque indifference exchanges or passionate flare-ups. It’s an altogether more lost Lear that we see fall apart.
Pennington does all the key set-pieces extremely well. The howling speech in the face of the battering storm is powerful and arresting; the reconciliation with the blinded Gloucester is truly sad; and the deep, guttural wounded snarl that tears from the depths of his body when he discoverers the murdered Cordelia is striking and riven with melancholy, a study in desperate grief. His final scenes are raw and very very sad.
To be fair to Pennington, though, he doesn’t get any real support from most of the cast. Lear needs the other parts to resonate properly, so that his position is understandable, or at least comprehensible, in context. Most egregious here are the actors who play his daughters : Catherine Bailey (Goneril), Sally Scott (Regan) and Beth Cooke (Cordelia). None can manage the verse; none can establish character or relationships; none gives anything tangible to the production.
Webster has not made their tasks any easier and one could be forgiven for thinking he simply abandoned them to sink or swim. Cooke opens the play by walking onstage alone and, after a moment of contemplation, shooting a hunting rifle over the heads of the audience. It is never clear why this has happened. Scott is lumbered with a baby in swaddling clothes, a pram and a bassinet – again, it is not clear why. There is no pay off, no explanation. Worse, no rationale. Bailey is saddled with Hockey Stick Head Girl hunting attire and bad hair. None of these actors are permitted femininity or beauty. It’s bizarre.
Gavin Fowler is the personification of the curate’s egg as Edgar/Poor Tom. Some aspects of his performance are very fine indeed, but at other times he races through the text, spewing words like sewage into the ocean. When he is purposeful and engaged, he is very good and much of the Poor Tom sequences work very well.
For reasons which are impenetrable, Elliott’s Fool wears woman’s make-up and appears as a kind of cross-dresser. Is he making fun of Lear’s daughters? If not, what is the point – is it just the pantomime obsession with men dressed as women being funny? Whatever, Elliott does a decent job. In his final words, though, he demonstrates a gravitas which might have been better employed throughout the production. Directorial choices again.
There is little of interest in the other key performances which range from excremental (Scott Karim’s Edmund, Daniel O’Keefe’s Oswald, Tom McGovern’s Kent) to passably good (Caleb Frederick’s France/Doctor, Adrian Irvine’s Albany). Pip Donaghy manages some passages, especially when blinded, with style and sense, but great swathes of his performance are inept and unforgivably dull.
Shakespeare’s play is difficult to pull off spectacularly but it is a work which can achieve energy and interest without any directorial input. The words themselves are capable of real theatrical magic. Here, Webster does not achieve any serious improvement on the bliss the words can induce on their own, although Pennington does provide some wizardry of his own.
In the end, and overall, this is a serviceable King Lear but not a great one. The production is too muddled and the performances too lacklustre to reach greatness.
Still, the Richmond Theatre is a beautiful venue for this production, and if you have never seen King Lear you could do much worse than take in Pennington’s turn.