King Lear

Creation Theatre present Shakespeares’s greatest tragedy.
BMW Group Plant, 245745, Fri 10th February - Sat 1st April 2006

March 2, 2006
King Lear is a magnificent play. It’s got everything: murder, love, greed, humour, maiming, madness, deceit, remorse and a good solid helping of death all round. Creation have cleverly highlighted the main theme of cold-hearted avarice by placing it squarely in the 80s: a power-dressed Goneril and Regan stalk around a spare set of undisguised concrete and tarpaulins like executives from hell; and flashlight-waving officials in hi-visibility jackets have a powerfully disorienting effect in scenes of storm or escape.

The acting, as ever, lived up to our high expectations (particularly Darren Ormandy as Edmund/Kent and Jenni Maitland as the Fool); unfortunately, however, apart from a few lovely touches (Regan gouging out Gloucester’s remaining eye with the spike of her 4-inch heel), a lot of moving acting was marred by what we felt were some rather unwise directorial decisions. Too much shouting, too often; an inconsistent delineation of stage and back-stage; corpses getting up and wandering off when no longer needed; an unnecessary come-and-go Welsh accent and multiple fight set-pieces in slow-motion, complete with spooky red light and humming speakers. Gloucester’s eyes also presented a problem: once removed, they lay about on the stage like a couple of banana skins and distracted one from the action. The frustrating thing was that these were things that could very easily have been avoided, and without them there existed the bones of a really satisfying production, rather than a piece reminiscent of the wrong kind of student theatre.

Creation, perhaps wisely, assume quite a bit of familiarity with the play on the part of the audience. One or two explanatory bits are cut, and there’s quite a lot of doubling: most noticeably Darren Ormandy as both Edmund and Kent. While this is necessary in a small company, and while the changes were almost unbelievably slick, it did in conjunction with the various disguises in the play cause a bit of confusion for my companion, a Lear virgin (“But I thought Edmund was a baddie, why is he pretending to look after the king?”). Ormandy carried it off remarkably well, though, shifting coat, accent and character in a flash.

The acting, in general, was spirited and sensitive. The various reactions to Lear's blustering rages, in particular, conjured up an arresting and tense atmosphere of familial intimacy. Richard Cunningham stood out as Oswald: one of the smallest parts made hilarious by a comically hideous blend of pomposity and passion; all the better for the contrast with his chilling Cornwall.

This and the fiery text make it a riveting evening despite the drawbacks. King Lear doesn’t come to Oxford that often, so it’s probably worth having a look at, on the understanding that you will almost certainly at some point “see better Lear”.
Hayley Grindle’s bleak, autumnal, all-purpose set matches the bleakness of the story.

Charlotte Lucas and Eleanor Montgomery admirably convey the malevolent essence of the two mean-spirited, power-suited sisters, best avoided on dark nights, the antithesis of Jenni Maitland’s guileless Cordelia.

With a cast of eight, doubling is inevitable; Jenny Mailands’s quirky, haunted Fool forlornly seeks to mend the king’s failing grasp on reality. Darren Ormandy’s thuggish, lascivious Edmund is a natural confederate for Regan and Goneril, marvellously at variance with his fine portrayal of loyal Kent.

In contrast, Richard Cunnigham’s snivelling Oswald is a perverse delight, matched in cruelty by his vulpine Cornwall.

Andrew Macbean’s too trusting Gloucester /(Albany) touches the heart. The crucial Act 4 ‘Dover cliff’ scene between Gloucester and Gareth Kennerley’s notably heroic Edgar has marvellous tension and power.

Despite, or rather because of, the strength and support of the ensemble playing, the evening belongs, as it must, to Stephen Ley as Lear. Despotic and querulous at the start, by turns angry, appalled, fearful of his descent into madness, Ley never goes beyond nature as he becomes as one with the poor bare forked creatures cowering on the terrible storm blasted heath (so wonderfully evoked in the enormous playing area).

At the last, Ley’s wonderful clarity and dignity after madness has scavenged his soul is ineffably moving. At last Lear, and we, the audience, are permitted a vision of redemption:

she lives! if it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.

Douglas Rintoul’s supple, vigorous production drives his able cast relentlessly, never from the first moment releasing the audience from the play’s grip, and on through the central brutal chaos to the tragedy’s hushed resolution.

Go and see it.
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