An old man sits on the ground, his feet clapped in stocks. But he doesn't much want rescuing – in fact, he could do with the sit down.
Welcome to the bleak, comic world of Shakespeare's King Lear. Andrew Hilton's new production at Bristol's Tobacco Factory takes a while to warm up, but once in its stride, this is a Lear that appals, shocks and saddens – just as it should.
John Shrapnel tackles the monumental central role, creating a Lear who morphs by slow degrees from a stout, swaggering patriarch to a crushed shell of a man. In an exquisite exchange with his fool (played perhaps a touch too wisely by Christopher Bianchi), this Lear is gently stripped of all majesty even before the end of Act One. As Lear begins to lose his mind, Shrapnel becomes unsteady on his feet: as if only recently aware of his body.
Wandering the moor during a fierce tempest, Lear and his fool meet, first, Kent – played brilliantly by Simon Armstrong – and then the newly blind Gloucester (Trevor Cooper), a poignant symbol of the twists of fortune. Scenes laden with subtext are deftly handled by Hilton and his ensemble.
Away from the biting wind, Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan (Julia Hills and Dorothea Myer-Bennett) are wrapped in luxurious velvet. They are a terrifying team, goading each other on to ever more shocking deeds. Myer-Bennett's Regan is a woman thrilled by violence: trembling and sneering as she watches her husband (the Duke of Cornwall played by Byron Mondahl) pluck out Gloucester's eyes. The wronged, innocent daughter, Cordelia, meanwhile, is played persuasively by a doe-eyed Eleanor Yates.
This is a production that has confidence in the power of Shakespeare's text. The only element that jars is Harriet de Winton's design – the production begins in lavish Elizabethan costume, but as the play goes on, modern touches appear. The men wear combat trousers, Edmund (Jack Whitam) dons a leather jackets and, in the final act, Lear is brought on in a very modern wheelchair.
Still, there's no arguing with Hilton's staging of one of Shakespeare's most affecting ending. Shrapnel's Lear pads on to the stage carrying Cordelia's body in a mockery of a pietà before letting out an animal howl of pain. This is a gruesome play but, as this production manages to demonstrate, King Lear's true horrors go beyond its bloody acts.
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