King Lear, The Royal Exchange, dir. Michael Buffong, April 1 – May 7, 2016
With a play like King Lear, William Shakespeare’s formidable tragedy of madness, a divided kingdom, and children turned against their parents, expectations are inevitably going to be high, and director Michael Buffong’s co-production with Talawa Theatre, the Royal Exchange, and Birmingham Repertory does not disappoint. Buffong doesn’t go out of his way to contemporize the play, nor does he fall into the trap of “Bardolatry” (the idea that Shakespeare is somehow sacred, not to be tampered with). Instead, his Lear is understated and compelling, with outstanding performances from Don Warrington in the title role and a consistently excellent ensemble cast. The production combines elements of the play’s pagan setting and the Renaissance context of its writing, without being recognisably of either time period, something which allows the brilliance of Shakespeare’s language to speak both for itself, and to a twenty-first century audience.
Whilst Warrington’s Lear begins the play a stately, imposing presence, the disarray into which his divided kingdom falls is mirrored in his gradual descent into madness. Warrington switches between furiously railing and pathetic fragility: “Let me not be mad, not mad” he at one point pleads. This culminates in the powerful storm scenes directly before and after the interval: staged with a great deal of spectacle (and a great deal of rainwater) this is Shakespearean tragedy at its best. During the heart-breaking final scene, perhaps Shakespeare’s most devastating, it felt as though the entire audience was holding their breath.
Yet although Lear in this production is most definitely “a man more sinned against than sinning” he is not an innocent victim, something which I felt that the production was keen to emphasise. Even in the tragic final act, after Lear and Cordelia’s capture and imprisonment, the audience is made keenly aware of the complex power dynamic in the parent-child relationships that are so crucial to this play. During the famous “We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage” speech, for example, Lear gradually pulls Cordelia, who he is chained to, towards him, and embraces her, something which is on one hand incredibly moving, yet simultaneously shows Lear as still attempting to maintain the control over his daughter that is arguably at the root of his tragedy.
In many ways this is a play about power; it dramatizes the idea that in reality power is located in the attendants, ceremonies, and other trappings that accompany it rather than in anything intrinsic to an individual, something which Lear himself painfully realises: “Allow not nature more than nature needs’, he cries, and ‘man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.” The production explores the potential radicalism of Shakespeare’s text: the shocking and brutal blinding scene demonstrates the cruelty of those in power, and is immediately counterpoised by a tender scene in which Gloucester’s eyes are cleaned and bandaged by a female servant. In this play mercy and compassion are generally located with those at the bottom of society, rather than with those at the top.
Buffong’s production also benefits from an exceptional ensemble cast. Miltos Yerolemou (who some of you might recognise from HBO’s Game of Thrones) stands out as the Fool, combining frenetic comedy with real tenderness in his relationship with Lear. Goneril (Rakie Ayola) and Regan (Debbie Korley) are fantastically treacherous, and Thomas Coombes gives a hilarious performance as Goneril’s oily steward Oswald. My only disappointment came with the Edmund/Edgar plot: Alfred Enoch’s excellent Edgar is underused (the soliloquy that describes his transformation into “Poor Tom” is almost entirely cut), and Edmund (Fraser Ayres), while suitably villainous, in my opinion lacks the charisma to make his simultaneous seduction of both Regan and Goneril believable. These are minor points, however, in what is overall an extraordinary and powerful production of Shakespeare’s tragedy.