Theatre review: King Lear at Bath's Theatre Royal - That's right, girls – I'm the daddy

There's a touch of the Krays about this East End 'Lear' in which a dodgy property empire crashes

Kate Bassett
Saturday 03 August 2013 19:03 BST
David Haig in the title role of King Lear at Bath Theatre Royal
David Haig in the title role of King Lear at Bath Theatre Royal (Nobby Clark)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In King Lear, the dispossessed monarch famously runs mad on the heath. However, we're talking urban turf in director Lucy Bailey's new staging for Bath Theatre Royal – turf of the gangland variety.

David Haig's Lear is a 1960s honcho with a property empire, a violent temper, and an East End entourage of spivs and skinheads. In a suit and winklepickers, he's initially holding court in the back room of a pub – with maybe a touch of Ronnie Kray. Puffing on a fag, he's divvying up his assets between his daughters, starting with Aislín McGuckin's Goneril, a brassy minx dolled up in a turquoise sheath dress. This is Shakespeare-meets-The Sopranos and Mad Men, but in Tower Hamlets.

The palace bestowed on Goneril is a nightclub and gambling den, whence Lear is soon unceremoniously ejected. Then, in a swanky skyscaper, Paul Shelley's Gloucester finds himself brutally strapped into a chrome Wassily lounger, having his eyeballs gouged out by Regan's husband, using a corkscrew from the drinks trolley.

Bailey's designer, William Dudley, uses scrims and projections to realise numerous settings as fluidly as possible, though a few might render the audience more discombobulated than Lear. Instead of staggering away to Blackheath's acres of common land (as you might have expected) for the storm scene, Haig scurries through whirling alleys – like a naff video game – to wind up in what could be a basketball court, with a fuzzy backdrop of wire fencing.

Albeit with strained moments and textual adjustments, Bailey's update is smart in general, alighting on a society of civilized gilding and savage violence. Simon Gregor is a scene-stealing Fool, a runty geezer in a porkpie hat, always acting up like a satiric vaudevillean, knees splayed chimpanzee-style. Fiona Button is outstandingly assured as Cordelia, in jeans and sneakers, with a streak of stubborn, youthful idealism. Haig really excels himself at the outset and the very end, in his rage and tenderness towards her. Rather than a slow burn, he explodes in a quivering, tempestuous fury when she won't fawn. Ultimately, he's heartbreaking, curled up beside her corpse, with his head on her chest, crying like a baby.

However, he often seems too robust for the part, not credibly frail physically or mentally. The play's tragi-comic poignancy is blunted. Several younger supporting actors desperately need fine-tuning, and some of the accents are all over the place. Fiona Glascott's Regan sounds like Babs Windsor one minute and House of Windsor the next.

Still, you have to admire the Theatre Royal's extraordinarily ambitious summer season. It's a regional powerhouse.

Static (Etcetera, London **) is, by comparison, very much the work of theatrical fledglings. I caught this shoestring-budget, solo performance at the Etcetera pub theatre, where actor Hugh McCann was warming up as part of the Camden Fringe Festival, before heading for Edinburgh. He plays a nameless teen who tells us how he was mesmerized by 9/11, became a news addict, and now dreams of being up on screen with Jeremy Paxman.

A question mark hovers over how that fantasy might become true. We gather from inserted vignettes, in which McCann pretends to be the Boy's shrill, scrunched-up mum and chilled-out dad , that the lad may be a psychotic loner. We leave him, climactically, storming Tory HQ during the 2010 tuition fees protests, ecstatically engaged and lugging a fire extinguisher, a potential missile.

Writer-director Tom Nicholas has a way to go, in terms of honing his skills, eradicating dramatically inept and inert patches. Nevertheless, McCann – even taking a collapsing chair in his stride – has dynamic bounce, compensating for a lack of menace.

Also heading for the Edinburgh Fringe, on tour, is Ring (BAC, London ****), devised by director David Rosenberg with writer Glen Neath. Continuing Rosenberg's binaural sound experiments (helped by Fuel and Wellcome Trust backing, and by University College London medical researchers), this immersive thriller has its tongue in its cheek, and its headphone-wearing audience in the dark – literally, in pitch blackness. Acoustically, you're encircled by a sinister gang of voices. These characters want to foist – or execute – their fantasies on you.

Having sat sweltering, lights-off, for 50 minutes, you might want to give Rosenberg feedback on which proved dominant: suspense or the urge to snooze. Neath's script regrettably builds tension only to lose the plot. Nonetheless, the deceptive impression of spatial, 3D reality, conjured up by binaural recording techniques, is wizard. Moreover, it's intriguing, physiologically and psychologically. When a voice seems to be drawing near then whispers right in your ear, you know it's an illusion yet you can't help flinching away. And you would swear your hair has just risen in response to the breeze of another body brushing yours. Startling, spooky and amusing.

Twitter: @katebassett001

'King Lear' ( to 10 Aug; 'Static', The Fiddler's Elbow, Edinburgh ( to 23 Aug; 'Ring', Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh ( 19-24 Aug, and touring

Critic's Choice

Location, location, location: the touring production of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy – produced by Shakespeare's Globe – touches down at the historic Gloucestershire site of the battle of Tewkesbury on Sunday, before heading for London. The hit production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, starring an intensely neurotic Hattie Morahan, is transferring to the Duke of York's in London's West End (from Thur) for a 12-week run.

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