“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”, declares the Fool, garbed in the trappings of a mental patient. He positions the cast—all wearing animal masks—around the dimly-lit stage, and, after tip-toeing around the unsettling figures and adjusting their posture, clicks his fingers to throw us into Shakespeare’s most cruel tragedy. This is not King Lear as you may have seen it before; it is a Lear framed by the chaotic mind of a madman with a technical vision to match. Stephen Hyde’s production presents a multimedia version of the play that incorporates live-filming, a stunning light and sound design, and some brutal direction and choreography. The result is quite-breathtaking: a truly visceral King Lear with an ambitious vision that, when it works, adds a real power to the piece.
At the centre of the play is James Hyde’s Lear, a really fascinating take on the role. Lacking the physical stature to be the brutish patriarch of most productions, he is a petty and indignant tyrant: spitting curses at his daughters and quite brilliantly riding into one scene on the back of his Fool. Hyde is a mercurial King, flitting between outburst and proud offence, and one who is from the very outset on the verge of madness: when he cries ‘O fool, I shall go mad!’ he is harrowingly aware of impending decline. This is complemented by the production’s Fool (Alex Wickens) who, visibly mentally infirm and recognised only by Lear, becomes an extension of the King’s progressively fragmented mind. Wickens’ performance is impressive and never descends into caricature; though he sacrifices some of the comedy, his Fool is one who holds together the chaotic aesthetic of the play’s world and forms a really touching dynamic with Lear. The two play off each other well, powerfully conveying moments of intimacy and the competing elements of a frustrated mind, and the brutality of the Fool’s death is all the more impactful for it.
Georgia Figgis and Isobel Jesper Jones impress as Goneril and Regan respectively, the scheming cruelty of their ‘glib and oily art’ amplified when set against Emma Hewitt’s wonderfully touching Cordelia. Whilst Figgis and Jones mockingly survey Lear’s descent into madness, Hewitt chokes back tears when she is reunited with her debilitated father. A technically daring production of Shakespeare would be impotent without a truly capable cast and fortunately they rise to the not-insignificant challenge presented by one of the Bard’s hardest plays. The play’s second father, Gloucester (Owen Mears), is another notable performance. Mears’ tortured and rage-filled Gloucester is reminiscent of many Lears and brings an incredible weight to each scene. The violent removal of his eyes (along with the Fool’s shocking end) is an occasion where the vision of this production lands its most powerful blow. The audience is aurally and visually attacked as lights and effects blaze, with only Mear’s roar piercing a barbaric moment that will linger with an audience long after the show’s curtain call.
However, as is often the case with shows of such ambition, not everything works as well. A few overlong transitions make the movement between scenes disjointed and some ways in which Hyde has been liberal with the text don’t play out as well. Cutting a large section of Lear’s heath speech in Act III Scene II will be a disappointment for many, and the way in which the remaining speech was merged into another scene meant that much of the spectacle and catharsis offered in other productions was missing. The trial scene also lacked some of its potency; substituting the normally-used inanimate objects (who, in Lear’s crazed mind, appear to him as Goneril and Regan) for projected videos removed much of the scene’s uncomfortable humour. Though the play on a whole is testament to brilliant direction—most scenes are choreographed to near-perfection—these few changes don’t have the same pay-off. Similarly, Charlie MacVicar plays Edmund well but, in presenting him as precocious, brattish figure, he evokes neither the audience’s sympathy for his bastard’s lot nor the charm necessary to make him a believable object of attraction for Lear’s unkind daughters. Consequently the video sequence where MacVicar stares wide-eyed at their incestuous kiss doesn’t really work. If Edmund had been the highly-sexed, alluringly machiavellian figure he so often is, the sequence might have been effective, but here it comes across as slightly gratuitous.
Though not without its issues, this is a stellar piece of theatre. Staging Lear, especially with such an interesting and technically impressive vision, is an incredibly daring move. Despite this pressure, Stephen Hyde’s production is one pulls it off in an impressive way. This is an intense and visceral experience that draws out the chaos and cruel indifference of Lear’s world and boldly projects it on stage.
King Lear will be playing at the Keble O’Reilly from the 25th – 28th February
IMAGE/ King Lear publicity