A plethora of bemasked animals crawl upon the stage. Cue ethereal didgeridoo music as the fool contorts himself in the middle of the performance space, daring not to touch the pure vessel of Cordelia. From the opening tableaux, the sensory and animalistic tendencies of the players are made blatantly obvious.
If the production wished to emphasise carnal, base qualities then there is no better character to choose than the Fool, played by Alex Wickens. He remains a constantly tortured presence at the corner of the stage, writhing in anguish, with his manic speech and frantic body language slightly Gollumesque. Director Stephen Hyde explains to me that the Fool is a spectral presence, an “imp of the mind”, a cancerous tumour upon the ever unfurling wits of Lear, which is designed to fit in with the sensory, interior exploration of the production. Wickens’ performance is charismatic and the idea innovative, but I struggled to see how it would be clear to the audience without similar explaining.
A performance which cannot be faulted is that of James Aldred’s Edgar. His doubled performance as France may have been somewhat flat and lacking, but his Edgar owns the stage. As he emerges half naked onto the stage as Poor Tom, his use of physical theatre plays the character’s faux-Bedlam madness to a tee. His crazed eyes and ramblings as he throws himself around the stage captivate the audience in a blissful concoction of empathy, fear and laughter as gibberish pours unstopping from his mouth. Quite simply, he allows himself to become the character.
Sadly, a less successful instance of the suspension of disbelief evoked by the theatre is that of Lear himself. I could not quite put my finger on it, but I was simply not convinced by Lear’s characterisation. Although the production suggested that they wished to emphasise mental anguish over the effects of ageing, I’m not sure that Lear can ever be played youthfully – although James Hyde gives it a good shot.
Cordelia similarly failed to gain truly my sympathy. Her sisters (played by Georgia Figgis and Isobel Jesper Jones) are deliciously wicked and incestuous she-wolves vying for Lear’s blood and throne. Goneril’s smugness during the infamous love test makes you want to punch her in the face, whilst Regan’s enjoyment at Gloucester’s blinding makes your stomach churn. But Cordelia’s purity fails to shine as a contrasting foil to her sisters. The audience, like the Fool’s sapient advice, “are left darkling” and without comfort in the midst of wild beasts tearing each other asunder.
Despite this, the production is promising. Speaking with the director, it becomes clear how ambitious the project is. Complex fight scenes, soundscapes, and the heavy influence of the neo-noir promise delightful decay of Lear’s crumbling world. With some refinement and polishing, this jewel of a play could shine clearly again.
King Lear will be performed from the 25th – 28th February at the Keble O’Reilly.