A little more than kin and less than kind: King Lear at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

Saturday 15th June 2016

King Lear is not a play we would go to see lightly – it would take a pretty special actor to get us out to see it.  And finally, after teasing us with a New York run of the play, Michael Pennington has been touring with a production in the UK.  He is one of the very few actors who really fits the bill, with his vast stage experience and particular Shakespearean pedigree.  If Dances with Death was a nice warm-up to playing the tyrannical old man, this was the main event, and he does not disappoint.

Thanks to the BBC’s ‘Hollow Crown’ revivals, we’ve had an intensive grounding in the History plays.  But King Lear is new to us, and a fascinating study of the relinquishing of power rather than the acquisition of it.  Lear learns a hard lesson in what it really means to be powerless, and the play itself has a difficult and powerful message about unintended consequences.

King Lear expects the world to revolve around him and Pennington achieves this effect through sheer magnetism.  He is mesmerising, and his crisis is our crisis right from the start.  He demonstrates the overwhelming self-absorption that seems to have somehow managed to shield him from any suspicion that his two elder daughters and their husbands might have their own plans for his ‘retirement’.  His interpretation makes Lear’s madness the only sane reaction in an insane world.  In Pennington’s hands, the madness never descends into ranting, and however insane his words may seem to the outside world, he is mentally processing every sentence and giving it some kind of internal logic.  He keeps us guessing throughout.  Is this just the ‘infirmity of age’, or a quite natural reaction to all boundaries being removed, as if he is truly seeing the world for the first time.  He brings a preternatural energy to Lear’s journey, and if there was ever a case of never being too old to learn, this is it.  He ends the play truly enlightened, not self-pitying any more.

It is hard to describe the intensity of Pennington’s performance, and inevitably there is a drop in dramatic tension when he is off the stage.  Perhaps it is an intrinsic fault of the play, but many of the other characters seem underwritten.  It also seems plot-heavy compared to the poetry of Lear’s internal landscape.  However, there are some enjoyable performances.  We are told early on that the fool is pining for Cordelia, and Joshua Elliott really does convey the melancholy of a comedian who has lost his sense of humour.  His routines come from a place of pain and we can imagine how unwelcome his newfound honesty will be.  Shane Attwooll appears relatively briefly as the Duke of Cornwall and immediately establishes himself as a bruiser looking for trouble.  Catherine Bailey is a convincing Goneril, plausible as the concerned older sister who just wants the best for her father’s dotage, and gradually sucked into far more sinister motives almost in spite of herself.  Tom McGovern plays Kent, the loyal servant who is banished but decides to stick around by disguising himself with a new hat, a Scottish accent, and no glasses.  It works surprisingly well, and there is something touching about the liberation that he experiences once he is no longer bound by court rules – taking on the character of a tough and unpredictably violent commoner, he enjoys the licence of beating people up in the good cause of protecting his master.  The return to reality for him is abrupt and shocking.

There is no point in trying to hide it – we came for Michael Pennington and he made the trip to Cambridge worthwhile.  But we did wish that we had seen a production which really got to grips with the play – we just didn’t feel as engaged as we should have done.  To return to one of our favourite bugbears, what was the purpose of the vaguely early twentieth century costumes?  We struggled to work out what resonance there was supposed to be with this time in history.  And later in the play a Doctor appears with stethoscope and a red cross armband.  Sometimes these things can work, but we felt in this case the slightly random costuming was a symptom of a wider lack of focus in the direction.

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