The prince of Darkness is a gentleman.
Last Saturday I had the pleasure of my mother coming to visit me in Bristol, to take me to see King Lear at The Tobacco Factory. My mother likes to call Bristol a small provincial town – sometimes I wonder how it is that she ever left London – so I wanted to show her what theatrical feasts Bristol has to offer. Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory (SATTF) gave me more than I could possibly have asked for.
John Shrapnel was brilliant not only because of the gravitas of his voice, but also because of his astute characterisation. Although it has received mostly rave reviews, A Younger Theatre critic, Edward Franklin, said the play was without a singularly magnetic king. I have absolutely no idea where he was coming from – Shrapnel stunned with his movement from apathy into an almost knowing madness. His well-worn phrases came out fresh, as if he had just thought of them.
The soundscape was used magnificently .The thunderstorm reverberated around the space, embracing the action and acting as a divider in time, between Lear and his fall to madness, which came later than how it is habitually staged. His normally distracted questioning of Poor Tom about whether his condition was the result of giving all to his daughters was spoken coolly and rationally. His insistence on talking to the philosopher and learned Theban sounded knowingly sarcastic rather than delirious. He reappeared after the storm with flowers in his hair, raving about mice and cheese, appearing truly mad only when he stuck his hand down his trousers, indicating the location of the ‘Sulphurous pit.’
The grotesquely behaved sisters, Goneril (Julia Hills) and Regan (Dorothea Myer- Bennett), were acted with great skill, injecting comedy as well as venom into the haul of ghastly characters, and making Lear seem incredibly human and admirable in comparison. Interestingly, his retinue is hugely diminished as soon as he puts himself at the mercy of his daughters. The role of Cordelia is a slightly thankless one, in that she disappears for most of the play, but Eleanor Yates was delicate to the point that I shed a tear at her reunion with Lear, made all the more tragic by his sudden flash of lucidity and strength.
Christopher Staines has to act various different roles in one, since he moves in and out of disguise. I found it a little odd how disparate his commanding performance as Tom O’Bedlam was, in comparison to that of his original role as Edgar, where he seemed a little stilted, even uncomfortable. Edmund, played by Jack Whitam, who looks strangely like my image of Shakespeare – look him up, it’s uncanny – was wonderfully devious and lacking any moral compass at all. Sitting next to my mother throughout all of this, some of the lines – ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’ – pierced my conscience with pain, although perhaps this was just my mother’s pointed elbow- jabbing, accompanied by her mouthing of all lines concerning filial ingratitude.
Based on a myth, but contextualised in England, the blind Earl of Gloucester thinks he has jumped off the cliffs of Dover but is in fact prostrate on the same ground from which he leapt, this is not a history play, and so becomes much more universal. It has contemporary relevance to autocratic regimes; the programme compares the quest for self-empowerment manifested in the Arab spring as a reaction to being, as it were, the President’s children.
This was a straightforward production, holding up almost only the text for all its wonders, although it would be foolish not to credit its realisation to the incredibly strong performances by a world-class theatre company, and the subtle, intelligent directing. I came away stunned and delighted to have a lifetime of King Lear productions ahead of me.