BWW Reviews: KING LEAR, Cockpit Theatre, March 14 2014
It's hard to watch - it really is. David Ryall, now approaching 80, who plays the King who is losing his mind, is a real-life majestic actor who is, post chemotherapy, losing his memory - his reliance on a black book with the text highlighted may be a necessity, but it's a poignant reminder that Shakespeare captured mankind, and not merely a man, in his writing. To see the old man on the floor thumbing for his place in the text the better to respond to the chaos unfolding around him, is no distraction - it's a brilliantly effective underlining of the link between the external world and the stage that theatre usually prefers to disguise.
Darker Purpose Theatre's production is gruelling in other ways too - but nobody expects "Annie" so you have to get on with it! The various earls and dukes who vie for the ageing King's favour are tricky to sort out, especially when they go undercover, though the three sisters are so vividly portrayed that they are distinctive enough to keep in mind (if you can bear it). More than any other Shakespeare I've seen, I do urge first-timers to read a synopsis of the text before plunging into the three hours - but it's complicated!
Adding another layer of real life to the production is Charlie Ryall, David's daughter, who plays Lear's daughter Cordelia, lending an ache of recognition to anyone who has dealt with a parent whose mind and body is sliding away. Nikki Leigh Scott's Regan, red-haired and pinched of features, turns from sweet manipulation of the king to hand-to-hand combat with terribly credible violence, while Wendy Morgan's Goneril favours the poison, grinning as it works on her sister's innards.
Michael Luke Walsh's Edmund engages the audience with direct eye contact, as he, ever so pleased with himself, plots to achieve his goals with a ruthlesness that makes it hard not to give a cheer or two when he meets his end. Stephen Christos impresses as the blinded Gloucester (after the famous gouging scene that's very hands-on, as it were). His stumbling around with his "good" son Edgar (a loinclothed Dominic Kelly) is deeply affecting because his insight only comes with his lack of actual sight - by which time it's too late.
There's plenty of political power in the play and acting power on the stage, and it's all very close in an intimate space unencumbered by much in the way of props. You'll need a good night's sleep before tackling it in the evening, but, less than 24 hours on, my mind is already churning over some of the scenes, some of the ideas, some of the awfulness of man's nature revealed - Shakespeare does that. Written when London was in the grip of a plague that took thousands of lives and (Shock! Horror!) even closed theatres, there's a morbidity of the soul running through the play from start to finish. It's not easy, but it's worth it.