Talking Movies

October 16, 2017

King Lear

The Mill Theatre returns to the Shakespearean well in autumn once again with a spirited production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy.

Lear (Philip Judge) has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. But, while sycophantic siblings Goneril (Sharon McCoy) and Regan (Maureen O’Connell) flatter him to get their rightful shares, his truth-telling daughter Cordelia (Clodagh Mooney Duggan) refuses to lie or exaggerate, enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Fiach Kunz) and Albany (Damien Devaney). Cordelia leaves England sans dowry to become the Queen of France, and the steadfast courtier Kent (Matthew O’Brien) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He ‘disguises’ himself to serve Lear, while the scheming bastard Edmund (Michael David McKernan) uses the fraught situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Tom Moran) from the line of succession to Gloucester (Damien Devaney again); exploiting the political chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Clodagh Mooney Duggan again) foresaw…

There is a certain Game of Thrones vibe to this production, from Kent’s ‘disguise’ being a Yorkshire swagger, through the furry ruff of Lear’s greatcoat, to the stylised throne amidst three massive complicated spikes making a crown that dominates Gerard Bourke’s set design. This delivers an unexpected visual payoff when near the finale the villainous Edmund sits on the throne to lean on his sword; so close to possessing absolute power… Comparisons to Selina Cartmell’s 2013 Abbey production are inevitable as that trafficked in medieval visuals, but this production is considerably less expansive; no galleries and wolfhounds here. Director Geoff O’Keefe, however, avoids the muddled paganism Cartmell attempted. But, in a play already replete with disguises, he has doubled a number of parts; most startlingly Cordelia and the Fool being the same actress. That bold choice pays off, as do most of the doublings, though there is one silly wig.

O’Keefe doesn’t quite achieve anything as revelatory as Neill Fleming’s Claudius in last year’s Hamlet, but he adds interesting notes to multiple characters. The Fool is the apex of an uncommon commitment to the bawdiness of the play, and when CMD returns as Cordelia she holds a sword almost as a signal that she has been hardened by her exile; which makes her reunion with the mad Lear, when he finally recognises her, all the more tear-jerking. McCoy’s Goneril is more nuanced than the pantomime villain oft presented, her glances at Regan and Cordelia in the opening scene suggest a panicked resort to flattery and encouragement to her sisters to do likewise to humour a mad old man. O’Keefe perhaps overeggs her late asides to the audience being spot-lit, but McCoy grows into villainy impressively; aided by O’Connell’s novel rendering of Regan as daffy malice, and McKernan bringing out the black comedy of their love triangle as an Edmund cut from Richard III’s gloating cloth.

Judge is a notably conversational Lear in his ‘fast intent’ speech; his decision already made there is no need for pomp or majesty. This is a king in flight from majesty. Whereas previous Lears that I have seen, Owen Roe and Gerard Adlum, favoured camp notes for their madness, Judge’s Lear is childish; running, hiding behind benches, playing games with imaginary friends. His retreat from responsibility while wishing to still enjoy kingship is after all a retreat to childishness, and his shocking spit on Goneril is of a part with the spite of children. The madness on the heath is wonderfully achieved with Kris Mooney’s blue lights raking the audience while Declan Brennan’s sound effects swirl queasily. Judge’s descent into second childhood is expressed through sudden rage that almost outstrips language, perhaps the impulse for the sound design of screeching animals between scenes. In support Tom Ronayne is wonderful comic relief as a put upon servant, fussing over benches and defending himself with a cloth.

This is a fine production that has a number of interesting interpretations, and succeeds in pulling off the extreme ending which still remains the ultimate kick in the guts.

3.5/5

King Lear continues its run at the Mill Theatre until the 28th of October.

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