Theatre Review: KING LEAR – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

King Lear by PurpleCoat Productions

Following their five-star production of HAMLET and sell-out performances of TWELFTH NIGHT, Liverpool’s PurpleCoat make a welcome return to Manchester with their innovative re-imagining of KING LEAR.

Widely considered William Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy, KING LEAR tells the story of the jealous and ageing King of Britain who greedily divides his kingdom between his three daughters based on who loves him most. But Lear’s plan backfires when his favourite daughter Cordelia refuses to engage in his game, leaving his two eldest daughters Goneril and Regan to claim their inheritance. As greed and power soon set in, things begin to turn sour and family ties being to disintegrate leading to tragic and gruesome ends.

Bloody, brutal and incredibly intense, PurpleCoat’s innovative adaption of Shakespeare’s savage drama completely redefines the play we’ve come to know and love. The changes start early on with the company cutting down Shakespeare’s piece from a hefty four hours to just over two. The production is also contemporary in style, making use of modern costumes and attitudes, particularly in reference to homosexuality (Kimberley Lasi plays the Duke of Cornwall, wife to Lear’s daughter Regan) and drug addiction.

The most interesting modification however is the way in which Producer, Director and Adaptor Karl Falconer has used Lear to demonstrate inhumanity, one of the main themes of the play. In this production, Lear is a verbally, physically and sexually abusive brute of a man, constantly chastising those around him, particularly his daughters. Paul Carmichael steals the show as the proud and vain King, flying into a fit of rage as he denounces Kent (Daniel Anderson) kicking him to the floor and swaying haphazardly behind a flask as he cavorts with the Fool (Karl Falconer).

The supporting cast give an equally captivating and engaging performance, particularly Natasha Ryan as Goneril and Evangeline Murphy King as Regan as Lear’s frightened and jealous elder daughters.

Jamie Peacock puts in a strong performance as Edgar, the trusting young man forced to adopt the persona of a madman and a beggar. There is superb work too from Stephen Michael Turner as the menacing, resentful and power-hungry illegitimate son Edmund, playing a mirror role to Lear with his debauchery, drinking and drug use increasing to fever pitch.

Yet despite the strong performances from the cast, PurpleCoat’s adaption isn’t without its flaws. Many of the complexities of Shakespeare’s play are buried under the histrionics of PurpleCoat’s version and the extensive cuts result in the play becoming muddled in parts.

While there are plenty of clever technical touches (Alisha Johnson and Mel Wells make good use of lighting and sound), elements of the production have an amateur feel to them, the use of watering cans and water bottles during the storm is one example of this.

That said, the strength of the cast performances pull it through and while the adaption may not be to everyone’s taste, it is certainly a gripping and intense production.

3 out of 5 stars

KING LEAR played at Hope Mill Theatre on 22 July as part of GM Fringe