The opportunity to see any new interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s ‘biggies’ is never one that this reviewer will pass up, so when my June list included HER Productions’ all female twist on ‘King Lear’, I was excited to see what fresh perspective they could offer. Unfortunately, what we witnessed was uneven performances, poor delivery and confused themes, only partially redeemed by a couple of strong performances.
We open with a sparse set and red curtain backdrop with the small brick lined theatre at Hope Mill harshly lit by overhead fluorescent strips. Lear (Christine Mackie) is relinquishing her power and dividing the realm between her three daughters according to the love they demonstrate, the resulting decisions leading to civil war and the fall from grace of this all powerful monarch.
From the outset this has always been a martial and male dominated play, by definition it is patriarchal, its raison d’etre is a demonstration of a father’s dominance and subsequent descent into infirmity. Therefore, it is an enormous undertaking to bring forward any female traits within characters that were never written with that interpretation in mind. Director Kayleigh Hawkins eschewed this more difficult road, instead offering a quite traditional Lear, albeit with an all female cast, but this decision brought no spark or insight to the production. There was a half hearted attempt to demonstrate the class divide in the play, bastard Edmund (Haylie Jones) railing against her lowly birth and plotting revenge, but these themes quickly petered out after the opening act. Hawkins may ask me to ‘Reason not the need’, but I was left thinking whether there was purpose of some of these directorial choices.
The editing of the running time to 140 minutes was interesting, in parts it felt like a rush between scenes to ‘ Lear’s Greatest Hits’, but an attention-sapping 90-minute first half, that took us all the way to the blinding of Gloucester (Fiona Scott) added inequality to the already inconsistent interpretation. Some entertainment was gleaned from the extremely funny musical choices that peppered the evening, Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ with its Major Tom reference and ‘What Do I Get?’ by The Buzzcocks announcing the opening division scene being my favourites.
As with Kathryn Hunter as a female Lear at The Globe last year, I hoped that Christine Mackie would demonstrate a different perspective on Lear, explaining her character arc with some sympathy and understanding. Whilst she showed clarity in delivery, I was only moved once, during the scene with her and blinded Gloucester, with both Scott and Mackie producing the only genuine emotion in the entire piece. It is fair to say she was not well served by the remaining members of the company, with only Scott, and Jones (Edmund is the best part) emerging with real credit. Only Jones from the younger company members demonstrated proper understanding meter and rhythm in making the speech come to life, leaving large swathes of the production feeling like a series of entrances and exits without discernible purpose.
I have always had an issue with King Lear, maybe this is a hangover from my first exposure to the play, an execrable touring production in 1986 featuring Nigel Davenport as the eponymous King. It demonstrated everything that was bad about staging Shakespeare, putting me off the play for over a decade. In the ensuing thirty five years, I’ve seen it around ten times with Jacobi, Sher, Courtney and Simon Russell Beale as the lead, and never once warmed to this tragic tale of the descent of a man from lofty authority to humble honesty. Only Don Warrington at the Royal Exchange in 2016, came close to unpicking the pride, misogyny and mental deterioration that is present in the writing.
This interpretation was never going to scale those lofty heights and it would be unfair and mean spirited to expect it to do so. However, the decision to introduce changes in gender carries with it an implicit expectation of a more radical and interesting take on this story, something which was unfortunately not present in this production.
Playing until 18th June, https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/event/lear/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 8th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: