“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln
An unnecessary abdication leads to a king without a country and a nation divided. Daughters against fathers, sibling against sibling. But where does it all end? Directed by James Eley, Shakespeare’s tale of ancient Albion is transposed to the turbulent times of the present day. Eschewing all non-essential elements, the production’s focus is firmly on the relationships. The opening scene – where Lear ‘holds court’ and we’re introduced to the principal characters – is pitch perfect, as is the wisdom of the casting.
As Goneril and Regan, Zara Banks and Fleur De Wit respectively convey their characters’ duplicitous nature – obsequious one minute and indifferent the next. When one thinks of the most memorable female characters in the Bard’s canon, they usually have a Machiavellian nature, such as Lady Macbeth or Tamora in Titus Andronicus. With this in mind, the prime mover in this production has undergone a gender reversal, so Edmund – the ‘bastard son’ of Gloucester – is now called Ada.
Portraying the most complex schemer this side of Iago, Evangeline Beaven plays the part with relish – a character who is unburdened by conscience or doubt. And then there is the ménage à trois dynamic to consider… The sexual politics of Ada ‘corrupting’ Lear’s daughters and playing them against each other has more than a dash of Jean Genet’s The Maids about it (though it could also be argued that between these women, the ‘yoke of the patriarchy’ is overthrown).
Outside of this ‘coven’, Cordelia (played by Jessica Kinsey) is that rarest of people in post-truth Britain – unencumbered by familial or political considerations. Excommunicated from the graces of Lear and Gloucester (Christopher Poke), Cordelia, Edgar (Daniel McCally) and Kent (Pete Picton) take on aliases to be near their estranged parties. In a world where honesty and measured words are rewarded with bile and banishment, the ‘faithful’ are proof that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.
The use of the back wall to denote the scene’s location (and ‘tweak’ the references to well-known London pubs and landmarks) is as amusing as it is effective. The same can be said for the performances of Kent, Gloucester and Lear.
While King Lear isn’t the first example that springs to mind when talking about Shakespearean plays with humour, the actors here flesh out the innate playfulness in the text and the rhythm of the meter. In the case of Lear himself, Booty accentuates the dementia-esque demeanour of Lear, as he descends into his ‘second childhood’.
© Michael Davis 2019
King Lear runs at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 30th March