As we hit the half way point of the Shakespeare 400 anniversary year, more and more productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays are making their way on to stages, television and cinema screens up and down the country. Amateur to professional, graduate performers to seasoned actors – all are taking to the stage to pay tribute to the great canon of plays and their creator.
The current production of King Lear from Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Royal Exchange Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company has been anticipated as a highlight of The REP’s season; with a host of well-known names billed to be taking part. Sadly the production I saw this evening failed to live up to expectation.
A stark set and dramatic lighting made for an imposing opening sequence that set the scene well, with Rakie Ayola, Debbie Korley and Pepter Lunkuse as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively, each giving just the right level of passion and subtle reaction in establishing the sense of family discord from the start in response to Don Warrington’s Lear – an intriguing portrayal of an ageing man struggling between his desire to retain control and the pressures of an ailing mind. A strong start too from Fraser Ayres as Edmund and Alfred Enoch as Edgar in the parallel subplot of brothers at war with each other.
However these strong beginnings soon gave way to a very static production that saw little variation in pace or energy. The circular set design soon became problematic, with cast placed in circular formations in a way that somehow felt exclusive to the audience. Without the entrance of a named host in to a scene, it was often difficult to mark the transition from scene to scene and thereby establish which character’s house the story had moved to. The strong delivery and establishment of character at the beginning plateaued into a set of performances that saw little development and left me feeling detached from the majority of performers on stage.
There were some touching performances throughout, in particular Wil Johnson (Earl of Kent) and Miltos Yerolemou (Fool) who both managed to break through the fourth wall barrier and make a lasting connection, yet overall the production lacked the capacity to draw real emotion from its audience.
Perhaps it was the vastness of The REP stage which hindered the production. I cannot help but wonder whether the production would engage better with its audience by having them in closer proximity with the cast, playing a smaller venue or in the round. In a play that focuses on family drama and relationships, it is essential that the audience can connect with these families and go on the journey with them, but the distance established between auditorium and stage in this production makes this connection difficult to sustain.
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