Main pic: James Thacker
Taking their template from the Greeks – specifically Aristotle – Shakespeare’s tragedies centre on a man’s downfall brought about by a fatal character flaw. Macbeth has his ambition, Othello his jealousy and Hamlet his indecisiveness, famously encapsulated by the existential question “To be, or not to be”.
In King Lear, a play so brutal and violent that Nahum Tate rewrote it in 1681 with the main protagonists living happily ever after, the King is ultimately brought down by his excessive pride, or hubris. Long story short (and as the play is more than 400 years old I’m not too concerned about spoilers…if you are, look away now) the ageing king is looking to divvy up his kingdom among his three daughters and, to help him decide who gets what, he asks his progeny to tell him how much they love him.
Daughters Goneril and Regan lay it on thick with prose so purple it would make even Boris Johnson blush. Cordelia, the youngest, answers honestly, telling her father that she loves him no more or little than any daughter should love her father. She is banished, Goneril and Regan get their scheming hands on the kingdom and the tragedy starts to unfold.
This production, cut from five to three acts, transfers the action from “Albion”, a sort of ancient, mythical England, to a modern office. I do not have any objection to this; one reason why Shakespeare remains relevant today is that his plays contain a universality which transcends setting or costume. On occasion, the office setting jarred, and I have to admit to wincing when a command to draw swords resulted in a couple of computer keyboards being wafted around – rather less threatening to life and limb than sharpened steel.
As is the modern fashion, some of the male parts were played by women. Again, this is not something with which I have a problem and Shakespearean gender swapping has been a staple of several successful productions for some time. Helen Stirling-Lane as Lear and Nina Bright as Kent were admirable and yet I am forced to wonder whether this was change for change’s sake. The play boasts two of the meatiest women’s parts ever written – evil daughters Goneril and Regan – and redressing the gender imbalance might have been more effectively reserved for a different project.
Goneril and Regan, played by Shaylyn Gibson and Helen Oakleigh respectively, stole the show. Gibson’s Goneril was the more calculating, while Oakleigh’s Regan was wildly dangerous and brilliantly unhinged. Remind me never to be alone with her in the presence of sharp objects.
Cordelia’s death and her father’s hope-against-hope desperation to see signs of life where there are none is one of the most heartrending scenes in English drama, the King’s redemption coming too late to save him from the inevitability of the tragedy. Here it was beautifully played; pathos without sentimentality, despair without mawkishness.
This Lear has now closed after an all-too-short run at the Stockwell Playhouse, sadly the last in-house production from this stalwart of the London fringe. And while it may not carry the heft of a full five act version at the National or The Globe, young director Ollie Maddigan and the accomplished company deserve a revival.