Theatre Review: KING LEAR – Royal Exchange, Manchester

King Lear, Royal Exchange

Philip Whitchurch (Earl of Gloucester) & Don Warrington (King Lear) in KING LEAR.  © Jonathan Keenan

Hard-hitting, savage and incredibly intense, Talawa’s production of KING LEAR is a brutal and bloody tale of a family tearing each other apart

Following their groundbreaking production of Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS in 2013, Talawa Theatre Company and Artistic Director Michael Buffong return to the Royal Exchange with a new version of William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR.

The classic tragedy tells the story of the aging king of Britain who decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Lear plans to give the largest piece of his kingdom to the child who professes to love him the most but his scheme backfires when his favourite daughter Cordelia refuses to engage in his game, leaving his two eldest daughters Goneril and Regan to claim their inheritance. With Cordelia banished and Goneril and Regan growing increasingly impatience of their father, things soon begin to turn sour and family ties being to disintegrate leading to tragic and gruesome ends.

Brutal, savage and incredibly intense, KING LEAR is a bloody tale of a family tearing each other apart. Talawa’s ruthless and hard-hitting production is a brutal portrait of one man’s unwinding sanity as he experiences the highs and lows of hope and despair, wisdom and foolishness, greed and devotion, love and rage.

KING LEAR is an epic story of extremes and Talawa’s production is on an epic scale. Signe Beckmann’s striking circular set design is simple yet effective, bringing to mind a solar eclipse, highlighting the themes of darkness and blindness in the play. The dark barren landscapes, cold interiors and stamped earth floors suggest a world at the mercy of the elements and creates an unsettling sense of emptiness where the actors are forced to to confront their relationships and the terror of being left alone in a bleak and desolate world.

Acclaimed stage and screen actor Don Warrington takes on the title role in an inspired performance as the proud and vain King who believes material wealth is richer than unconditional love. Rather than falling into madness as his kingdom dissolves, Warrington’s Lear appears to suffer a mental and emotional breakdown, which at times is harrowing to watch. The actor’s physical appearance also changes throughout the play, his tall, overbearing frame physically shrinking as his health and sanity deteriorates.

Rakie Ayola as Goneril and Debbie Korley as Regan impress as Lear’s greedy and power-hungry elder daughters, as does Pepter Lunkuse as their younger sister Cordelia whose strong yet sweet performance lights up the stage.

Alfred Enoch in KING LEAR

Alfred Enoch as Edgar in KING LEAR at Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo Credit: Jonathan Keenan

Alfred Enoch shines in his Royal Exchange debut as Edgar, the trusting young man betrayed by his brother and forced to adopt the persona of a madman and a beggar. There is superb work too from Fraser Ayres as the resentful and power-hungry illegitimate son Edmund, the main villain of the play, and Philip Whitchurch as the Earl of Gloucester who is viciously blinded in a shocking and grisly scene which has the audience physically reeling.

The best of the comedy comes from Wil Johnson as Kent, the King’s loyal protector, Thomas Coombes as Goneril’s messenger Oswald and Miltos Yerolemou as the Fool, who subtly balances sadness and sarcasm with criticism and compassion.

Despite the strong performances from the cast, a couple of minor issues spoil an otherwise flawless production. At times, it is difficult to hear dialogue, particularly over the sound effects. Those familiar with the play will also know that it is a long play. Lear’s struggle with insanity makes it Shakespeare’s most dramatic and darkest tragedy, with little room for any lightheartedness, and the long character-driven monologues make it a challenging piece to watch.

That said, there are elements of this production which are the work of genius and the cast do a fantastic job of engaging the audience despite the long running time. Overall, a gripping and intense production of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.

4 out of 5 stars

KING LEAR runs at the Royal Exchange from 1 April to 7 May 2016.