Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Michael Buffong’s King Lear is a tour de force: gimmick-free yet undeniably modern, a fast-paced production that manages, like all the best Shakespeare, to be at once timeless and of its time.
Don Warrington is the eponymous old man, a case-study in futile bluster, self-destructing in his anger at the ravages of old age. I like the way his impotence is emphasised here: he’s never a magnificent, raging tyrant, just an old man who commands deference only as long as he wears his crown. Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia is also a revelation: for the first time, I see why she is Lear’s favourite. She’s as stubborn and destructive as he is, as incapable of compromise. She’s neither sweet nor resolute in this production: she’s a headstrong teenager, with the moral certitude only youth or extreme religion can provide. I love the way her lip curls at her sisters; she’s self-righteous and scathing, a Cordelia for the modern age (maybe this is how she was always meant to be?).
It’s a grim play, one of the Bard’s bleakest, and the comic relief from the Fool (Miltos Yerolemou) and Oswald (Thomas Coombes) is most welcome. They’re witty and engaging, pushing just far enough to undercut the tension and provide those all-important shades of light and dark. While we’re on the subject of grim, the notorious blinding scene is played for horror here; there’s nothing subtle in an eye gouging that results in “vile jelly” flying out across the stage into the audience. It’s so shocking there are gasps and groans – and that’s exactly as it should be, I think.
The storm scene is perhaps a little undermined by the fact that the Exchange’s new water-feature has been enthusiastically showcased in almost all recent productions, so what should be astonishing is more, “Oh, this again.” Still, it’s effective – the lightning strikes, the thunder claps and everyone is drenched.
Lear is a dense and complex play; there’s too much of it to cover in one shortish review. Suffice to say, I loved this production: a pacy, confident interpretation that trusts Shakespeare’s words to do their magic.