King Lear, Wells Theatre Company, Bishop’s Palace

IF Hamlet is the North Face of the Eiger for a young actor, King Lear is Everest for an older one. You need a profound experience of life as well as the stage to begin to understand the character. The role requires huge vocal and physical strength, and the actor must convey a hint of the vulnerable man beneath the tyrant to capture and hold the audience’s sympathy.

When Lear divides up his kingdom, it is the petulant whim of an old man used to getting his own way. He wants to be told how much he is loved. He hears only the words not the spaces between them.

The audience is shocked by the callous way he casts his youngest daughter aside – but we see the deep love that is implicit in what Cordelia doesn’t say. And in this famous division of the kingdom scene we need also to recognise the person who has inspired Kent’s fearless loyalty.

Most open air productions are comedies – audiences want to have a picnic, a bottle of wine and a little light entertainment. Edgar Phillips and the Wells Theatre Company demand rather more of their audiences. The company made its 2017 debut with Hamlet, in the stunning setting of the Bishop’s Palace and gardens, and they have followed it up with King Lear.

Neil Howiantz had to dig very deep to find the vocal range, and to convey both the autocratic power of the king in his pomp and the dawning realisation that he has been  duped by his own vanity and the honeyed words of his two older daughters. Goaded, prodded and chided by his loyal Fool (a terrific performance by Charlie Wood) he teeters on the edge of sanity, with moments of piercing self-knowledge.

Around the king is a ragtag court, in which the principal figures are three women – the powerful and ruthless older daughters and the quiet Cordelia (a touching performance by Suzie Tookey).

This production eschewed the idea of Goneril as the stronger and intelligent sister and Regan as the envious, spiteful one. Instead we had two equally dominant women. Goneril (Jane Sayer) openly despises her husband Albany (Tom Kenward), clearly giving “favours” to the odious steward Oswald (Kevin Hardacre) and only too keen to get her hands on Edmund (Jamie Reed with a nice balance of charm and a total lack of scruples).

Karen Trevis’s Regan is a complex monster – articulate, charming, beautiful, with a heart blacker than pitch. There is a wonderfully telling moment, as her husband Cornwall (the always reliable Pete Fernandez) reaches for her support after he has been stabbed – she glances, thinks for a nano-second, and glides off … towards a new life with Edmund.

Lear is full of pitfalls  – how do you make Poor Tom believable for a modern audience, how do you use the Fool in a way that can still give a few laughs in this unremittingly bleak study of old age and ambition, how do you make us care for the king?

The director took the wise decision to let the play be what it is –  there was just enough stage thunder for us to forget the warm evening sunshine and shiver with the motley quartet in the wind-battered hovel, and the cast did the rest.

Barry Squance’s Gloucester was the perfect counter-balance to Howiantz’s Lear. This play is about two old men both blind to the faults (and virtues) of their children. Squance brought a moving dignity to the nobleman who stands up courageously to cruelty.

King Lear is full of metaphors of blind fate. Gloucester tells his ruthless, illegitimate son, Edmund: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods – they kill us for their sport.” The theme reaches its shocking climax in the play’s most notorious scene, the blinding of Gloucester, while the much-repeated image of the wheel of fate – Lear is “bound upon a wheel of fire” – reinforces the inevitability of the tragedy.

This was an intelligent, well-paced production, which allowed Shakespeare’s poetry and insights to shine, which was always accessible (and audible – no mean feat in the open air) and which found both the darkness and the heroism of ordinary people in extraordinary times. It reinforced the universal appeal of the play and the timelessness of Shakespeare’s vision of humanity.


Pictured: Scenes around the Bishop’s Palace gardens, with Lear, Regan, Edmund and the Fool.

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