WATCHING Shakespeare’s great tragedy King Lear in the aftermath of the referendum and Jeremy Corbyn’s confidence vote was an extraordinary experience. When the Fool’s prophecy reached the line:
… Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion
there were gasps in the audience, many of whom were fighting back tears.
Not the reaction that director Tom Morris could have anticipated for his groundbreaking production, which celebrates the Old Vic’s 250th anniversary and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s 70th with a combined cast led by the magnificent Timothy West in the title role, and a heartbreaking Stephanie Cole as his loyal Fool.
They and David Hargreaves as Gloucester are on stage with a group of graduating actors from the celebrated theatre school until 10th July. Some roles are shared, some of the just-still-student actors understudy the three principal roles, some – Tom Byrne’s memorably differentiated Edgar/Poor Tom, Michelle Fox’s chilling Regan, George Howard’s kindly France, Poppy Pedder’s tender Cordelia and Jessica Temple’s scheming Goneril – have one role to play.
Tom Morris’s central theme is the divide between the generations. Lear, old and tetchy, seeks a vicarious youth by wild dancing with his attendant knights and wants his daughters to compete with proclamations of love, by the weight of which he will divide his kingdom.
All the time his devoted Kent (in a powerful performance by Danann McAleer) and his ailing and wise fool stand by, impotently aware of the consequences of the king’s pettish behaviour.
No good can come of it. The older sisters, used to collaboration and sibling rivalry, protest their total love for the old man, while his devoted youngest can’t be doing with such posturing. So Lear disowns and banishes the one who loves him, divides his kingdom between the others and their husbands, and announces he’ll be their house-guest for half of each year – him and his hundred knights, that is.
At the same time his old ally Gloucester is having trouble with his sons. One, Edmund, is the result of an adulterous affair. He’s endlessly jealous of his legitimate brother Edgar, and so tricks their father into believing that Edgar wants him dead, leading to another banishment.
When he realises his folly, Lear looses focus, and in this subtle performance, fears losing his wits. So often the “mad scenes” are played with poignant theatricality, but Timothy West brings us a man awarely clinging to his own sanity. It is an astonishingly affecting performance, done mostly in low key with the occasional shattering outbursts.
And it’s matched by Stephanie Cole, a skipping, gleeful and despairing fool whose relationship with her King is tender and accustomed. I have never found the character, however movingly performed, more than a theatrical device. Cole and West (and Morris) make perfect sense of it.
The sparse set is designed by BOVTS student Anna Orton and atmospherically lit by Rob Casey, and Dave Price has chosen a soundscape which includes techno beats for the knights and fine unaccompanied singing by a choir of the young actors.
The fight between Edgar and Edmund is full of sparks as the swords connect.
This Lear is both frighteningly and painfully relevant, performed by an acting ensemble that can’t be faulted. The graduates can only have gained from this innovative production, which brought them into close touch with three such fine and experienced actors.
Perhaps it was their youthful energy, as well as Tom Morris’s lucid and convincing production, that brought out two of the finest performances that West and Cole have ever given.
Photographs by Simon Annand