Old King Lear, weary of royal duties, proposes to break up his kingdom and divide it among his three daughters. But this rash generosity is cruelly repaid and Lear discovers too late the false values by which he has lived – and, in turn, the suffering common to all humanity.
Its tempestuous poetry shot through with touches of humour and moments of heart-rending simplicity, King Lear is one of the deepest artistic explorations of the human condition.
Yet again the travelling players of the Globe Theatre have found their way to the Brighton Festival to delight us with another of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. This time it is the great tragedy of the mad King Lear, betrayed by his daughters and his own blind foolishness. The day I saw the show we were about as fortunate with the weather as one could hope to be. Lounging in the hot afternoon sun for three hours is pretty nice thing to do anyway, even more so with a dose of top quality theatre into the bargain.
It feels like a very traditional experience watching the Globe touring theatre company. Pitching up a simple stage in a park, and doubling up on roles takes you back to (a possibly romanticised) notion of the companies of players who roamed the land in bygone days. This sense is further enhanced by the lack of microphones, or anything technical at all really, and by the jolly song and dance they begin and end the show with. While I did enjoy the rambunctious start to the performance, grabbing the audience’s attention and putting us at ease, there did feel something a little incongruous when the same style of song was presented at the end of the performance, mere moments after we had seen Lear sobbing over the corpse of his dead daughter. Perhaps a more mellow number would have suited the tone a little better.
There were some excellent performances in the play, from Joseph Marcell as Lear (I was pathetically thrilled to discover from reading the programme notes he had also played the posh butler Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), but also from some of the more minor characters, most notably Oliver Boot who played a deliciously Machiavellian Edmund and a very funny Oswald.
As always with Shakespeare the litany of characters with similar sounding names, being played by actors doubling up on parts, makes the viewing experience more than a little confusing at times, and this production was no exception. However, I did not refresh myself on the plot before going, or crib the programme notes, yet I still came away from the play with a pretty good grasp of what happened and who did what to who. I found myself appreciating the richness of the language, and the subtlety of the play’s more poignant moments, brought out by fine, clear acting across the board.
How this production would have come across in the rain is a good question, I fear that three rain-soaked hours may have challenged even the most hardy bard-lover - though the wild storm which dominates the middle of the play may have felt all the more real. Shakespeare plays do tend to be lengthy, and I think that this production could have benefited from being a little shorter, especially considering people are sitting on the ground, possibly in inclement weather. However, overall this was excellent theatre, well performed in a beautiful location under some blossoming trees.
Reviewed by AB 26/5/13