If you're an elderly king who, in your desire to continue doing fun kingly stuff without the associated hassle, decides to hand over the greatest share of your kingdom to whichever of your three daughters professes to love you the most, and two of those daughters don't love you as much they claim (in fact, they want to dispose of you), this does not bode well for a happy royal family. Indeed, it's more than likely that tragedy will ensue.
Tonight, the tragedy of King Lear was acted out by five people from the Creation Theatre Company; in itself this is a logistical mind-churner, without the added factor of having to perform amongst the shelves of a working bookshop. Nevertheless, the cast outdid themselves, with chameleon-like character changes facilitated by the most inventive use of garments I've seen in a while.
The central character, of course, is the king himself. As he bounds down a flight of stairs to his first encounter with us, Max Gold's Lear is sprightly, authoritative, somewhat egotistical, and prone to rages. Through senility, life trauma, or simply age, he transforms into spittle-infused dodderiness and trembling remorse. Whether he has truly become nobler and wiser, or whether, in his new, childlike state he has merely acquired that uncanny ability to speak the truth common to madmen, children, and those marked with the scent of mortality, is unclear. On occasions I struggled to hear his speech clearly. Michael Sheldon and Natasha Rickman were superb as Gloucester/Kent and the shrewish sisters Goneril/Regan, respectively; Morgan Philpott whirled through a myriad of roles, and Lucy Pearson's Fool surpassed her Cordelia.
In this production I sensed a contemporary worldliness outside of the domestic tragedy. Shakespeare's words speak about kingship, but Creation's sound effects, guns, and military uniform conjured up just as easily in my mind a post-Westphalian world with toxic combinations of alliance, duplicity and atrocity, magnified during conflict. This is just one example of how the production encouraged connection with the text, despite bits having clearly been cut to fit the 2.5 hour running time. The use of books (not Blackwells' own, I imagine) on stage was inspired, suggesting to me that the company really thinks about the place they use, that it is not just a gimmick; the staging was sympathetic to a 360 degree audience. These little touches have become characteristic of Creation's work.
It is 50 years since the creation of the Norrington Room, and twenty since the genesis of Creation. The collaboration between the two organisations was tonight fruitful and delightful, combining inventiveness with a quirky venue to create yet another quality performance. I can't wait to see more.