Simplicity is key with this diverse production of King Lear and despite the dirty white aesthetics, the piece is brimming with colour. Kevin R McNally plays a sharp, nasty Lear complete with an overly neat white beard. In an attempt to gain affirmation from his daughters, who are passively thrown around like ragdolls, Lear discovers his youngest daughter Cordelia - warm and playful Anjana Vasan - loves him merely ‘according to my bond; nor more nor less'. Lear, distraught at her lack of devotion, ridicules and tears the clothes (literally) off her back, much to her gaudy sisters’ delight. Sirine Saba plays watchful Regan who, dressed in brilliantly unnecessary fur, bleeds passion and jealousy. Emily Bruni as spoilt sister Goneril hides behind a demure façade in silver and nude shades, yet the glittered edges and low cut neckline betray her to her greedy and false truth. Bruni’s voice is rich and unique, with a definite villainous quality to it. Assistance for Cordelia comes in the form of a loyal Lady of Kent (Saskia Reeves), who protests that Lear is too harsh. Much to her dismay, she is flippantly banished to exile along with Cordelia. Reeves particularly aids the flow of the text throughout the piece, as the actors speak with a relaxed reverence ensuring the language feels familiar and fathomable. In an attempt to disguise herself from her former master, Kent transforms into a hilarious Delboy-esque geezer. Reeves delivers her lines with as much emotive freedom as wit, proving her to be quite the show-stealer.
Set loosely like a junkyard, the stage is bare besides minimal metal poles and white tarpaulin. Self-righteous bastard-born Edmund (Ralph Davis) watches from the scaffolding like a vulture, ready to feast on a world he believes to rightly be his. Edmund's legitimate yet sheepish brother Edgar (Joshua James) begins the piece as a socially awkward dweeb, only to find confidence in his madness and blossom into a hard-core and believable warrior by Act Two. As the action unfolds, the ensemble keep the ebb and flow of movement buzzing with their constant presence and focus. The night grows dark, and so does the play. Epic drums on stage mark the beginning of an immense storm and Lear, aware of his madness looming, ‘my wits begin to turn’, huffs and puffs and curses to the wind. All that is left is a childlike madman, which McNally plays with total distorted glee. The piece is riddled with humour even in its most tragic moments, providing catharsis in an array of emotions, and like a childhood teddy filled with comfort and wisdom, the singing Fool (Loren O’Dair) dotes on a deluded Lear, guiding him from the storm and unknowingly into a war.
Cold, desolate lighting washes the stage as Vasan finds sincere strength as Cordelia who, clad in a fire engine red blazer, screams revolution, waving her French flags proudly. Director Nancy Meckler takes Lear’s words ‘birds in a cage’ literally, as the actors commit wicked deeds inside their own large cage; adultery, imprisonment and murder. Death becomes the majority of the characters in the final moments of the play (you can’t have spoilers with Shakespeare, right?). The sisters perish. Husbands, servants expire. Seething with self-righteousness, Edmund fights his brother Edgar using innovative, sophisticated and epic choreography with the fight direction of Philip d'Orléans. Edmund dies a relatively happy man, remarking ‘Edmund was beloved’. Finally, pushed on in a wheelchair and surrounded by the surviving, McNally musters heart-breaking sensitivity as Lear rattles his last, haggard breath with his true daughter Cordelia in his arms. The piece falls short of five stars due to a slight melodramatic approach to the more tender scenes. Nonetheless, this is a gripping, stripped back piece complete with solid actors. – Faye Butler