Lear Alone is a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, using only King Lear’s lines in a unique performance set across five short episodes. Directed by Anthony Shrubsall and performed by Edmund Dehn this original show explores themes of ageing in today’s world, the increasingly problematic issue of homelessness, and isolation and its effects on mental health.
The show opens with Dehn sitting alone and obviously unhappy on a bench. Birdsong is prominent and Dehn begins to walk around the building whose grounds he is in, surreptitiously peering through the windows before beginning his first monologue, in which Lear is asking his daughters to describe the amount of love that they have for him to enable him to decide how to split the kingdom.
Dehn has excellent presence, and it is easy to visualise the busy court over which he is presiding while he stands in the empty car park. He mimes props and other characters with some skill and creates a palpable sense of being trapped by his circumstances. Walking towards the iron gate, he rattles the bars as though in prison, before easily opening it with the required code and escaping out into the wider world.
He soon receives a message on his phone from his carers asking if he will be back for dinner, which he ignores. He arrives at the Globe, where the steps and entrance are roped off, a sad effect of the pandemic situation which also stresses how isolated Dehn is becoming, shut out from the respectable world of the theatre. He begins to talk about doubts over his own identity and worries about his mental state.
As he walks through the rubble, pebbles and sand on the riverbank, his emotions begin to quickly fluctuate, with all changes of demeanour being excellently portrayed. Heavily graffitied streets have an air of danger as he continues his journey alone and when he walks past a large piece reading “Live forever” there is a certain wryness to it, as Dehn continuously points out that he is old and only getting older.
At the National Theatre, Dehn talks to the London Pride sculpture, with his dialogue featuring the insult “unnatural hags”, which he spits at the naked and unusually proportioned women in a clever use of space. A later performance in an empty theatrical space, filled with an audience of empty chairs, is a tender tribute to the recent state of theatres.
The piece is cleverly filmed from multiple angles, which emphasises how alone Dehn is, particularly while he is talking with the camera focused on his back. The crowds he walks through are always at a slight distance from him, creating a sense that people are avoiding him, and he is desperately alone, even when surrounded by people.
Throughout the piece, Dehn wears a coat, while everyone else is in summerwear, underlining his isolation. As the piece progresses Dehn becomes increasingly dishevelled, the crooked collar on his coat giving him a forlorn look. As he wanders through underground tunnels alone, the performance feels particularly poignant as his dialogue increasingly addresses the audience directly, giving the piece a lonely, but immersive feeling.
The messages from the carers continue to be ignored as they become increasingly worried about his whereabouts. This creates a sense of time in the piece as it becomes clear that several days pass as Dehn makes his journey around London.
The piece intends to raise awareness of issues of homelessness and isolation, and isolation is of course something which we have all become more familiar with recently. Dehn becomes increasingly desperate and upset throughout the piece as the time he has spent in isolation increases. His haunted expression provokes a deep sense of empathy for his unhappy situation. His determination not to succumb to his fragile emotional state seems to evaporate altogether when he finds an abandoned blanket which morphs seamlessly into other characters which he then speaks to and reverently cradles in his arms.
Towards the end of the piece, Dehn feels as though he is completely lost and the people around him begin avoiding altogether, only noticing him to go around his trudging form. He ignores the continued message tone on his phone altogether and begins to look completely exhausted, both physically and mentally.
King Lear is an iconic tragedy, and this original interpretation throws it entirely into the modern world and emphasises the tragedy of the story absolutely by leaving Lear literally quite alone. Those who care for him, whether at work or otherwise, are left unable to reach him as he disappears into a vast city inhabited by millions of people who are repelled by his loneliness. Truly adding a new angle to an old play, Lear Alone is a compelling piece of online theatre, which will make you question how you treat the people you know, and the people you don’t.
Lear Alone is being streamed by Scenesaver until 31st August 2021 and is available here https://www.scenesaver.co.uk/production/lear-alone/
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 14 August 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★