REVIEW: King Lear

Bleak, brutal, brilliant.

deer park king lear Peterhouse Shakespeare Students University of Cambridge

Shadowy figures emerge from the dark onto a floodlit stage.

King Lear begins as it means to go on: the twists and turns of Shakespeare’s most tragic play are thrown into high contrast in this bold production. It does a captivating job of bringing Lear to life, with the “oppressively agoraphobic” environment  a constant reminder of the primal nature of this play: raw emotion and brutality are exposed and thrown to the (literal and metaphorical) wind.

Lear splits his kingdom between two of his daughters, and exiles the third. This leads to rebellion and chaos as long-lasting feuds and plots come to a head with a bleak and tragic end.

Tim Atkin was a commanding Lear, storming the descent from formidable, authoritarian monarch to the madness of grief and betrayal. At times he leant slightly too heavily on overplaying the comedy, which felt at odds with the tragic nature of Lear. Overall, however, he provided the necessary balance between ferocity and infirmity and his tortured downfall into madness was compelling and sympathetic (even at times pitiable). Isobel Laidler’s bastard Edgar was perfectly bittersweet, a schemer willing to stab his allies in the back but one who also took childish delight from observing the stars in the night sky. Laidler swung from raging frenzy to calculating calm effortlessly and her nuanced portrayal was one of the strongest of this play. Also standout were the performances of Daisy Jones as Cordelia and the Fool and Louis Norris as Edmund and the madman Tom.

Cast members Daisy Jones, Tim Atkin, Joe Sefton and Benedict Flett

Cast members Daisy Jones, Tim Atkin, Joe Sefton and Benedict Flett

Seth Kruger brought an honest vulnerability to his Gloucester that explains the ease with which he is manipulated by his illegitimate son, and made his gruesome fate more shocking. Joe Sefton as the cruel Cornwall and Niamh Curran’s hard-faced Oswald, though not onstage as often as other cast members, both had excellent dramatic presence and added a strong conspiratorial edge to the rising tension. Occasionally members of the ensemble would fall into monotone, but otherwise gave strong supporting performances.

Director Sam Fulton used the space offered by Peterhouse Deer Park incredibly well, contracting and expanding the spread of actors accordingly. The action in the claustrophobic court trial that opens this play was restricted to the small lit area, whereas the wild scenes of madness on the moors in Act II had people wandering in the distance, then running onstage from all angles, enhancing the chaos and turmoil of the King and his kingdom. Lear is a heavy play with a long running time, but this 360° staging created an immersive atmosphere that kept everyone engaged for the duration. Costuming was simple but effective; the heavy fur coats were a clever nod to the original Celtic setting, and pairing them with jeans ands modern jumpers created a contrast that gave this production a subtle subtext of being “out of time”.

King Lear is a dark and resonant portrayal of the nastier elements of human nature, and this production was especially impressive.

4.5 Stars