The Royal Exchange have a long and overall successful relationship with Shakespeare, and their latest production of King Lear poses no threat to that hard-earned reputation. Crafted in association with Birmingham Repertory Company and Talawa Theatre Company (as part of their 30th anniversary celebrations), this is a master-class in the work of a master.
An apt choice for the year of Shakespeare 400, King Lear serves as a reminder of the lasting relevance of the Bard. The play tackles the repercussions of dividing a kingdom; in light of the upcoming EU referendum and the very recently (and precariously) settled question of Scottish independence, this has never seemed so relevant.
Shakespeare is a tricky undertaking for any company; Don Warrington – who plays King Lear himself – compares it to “Mount Everest.” The text has an intrinsic melody which must be played out, but the physical acting is just as important as the vocal in realising the power of its symphony. Here, the actors punctuated the rhythm of the text with their movements; a sword being drawn and a prince falling to his knees adding texture to a dynamic performance.
My old drama teacher used to say that an actor should be able to explain his motivations at any given moment. If you were to hit pause on a performance, this should be evident to the audience. King Lear follows this advice. There are moments where you want to pause if only to take a photo – to capture what is often an example of beautiful direction offset by a rich and earthy colour palette. Talawa’s Artistic Director Michael Buffong has achieved an exceptional feat here. The visual quality of the performance captures the essence of each character in a new way. This applies particularly to the relationship between Lear and his fool, played by Miltos Yerolemou. The tenderness between the pair and the desperation with which Lear holds on to laughter as he descends into madness is riveting.
This tenderness finds its reflection in the relationship between the Earl of Gloucester and his estranged son Edgar – realised with exceptional skill by Alfred Enoch, who you may recognise from his role as Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films. But Enoch is just one person in a strong cast of sixteen, many of whom had their chance to shine despite the dark subject matter of the play.
The sharp servant Oswald is portrayed wonderfully by Thomas Coombes, providing much-needed comic relief and with just the right amount of flamboyance. Centre stage, however, is commanded by Don Warrington, who cuts a raw and majestic Lear. Impulsive in both deed and manner, Warrington upholds the energy of the stage with admirable ease. In a play of three hours, a few lapses in energy are understandable: you do inevitably begin to count down the disastrous acts leading to the bitter end (made sweet by finally getting rid of your dead leg), but this is through little fault of the cast. The woman next to me left in the interval – an odd decision given that the last scene of Act One was by far the highlight of the whole production and a gross overreaction to what was – at worst – a slightly dragged out first half otherwise.
By no means was this production a perfect one, but it’s merits are many.