Review - King Lear at Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Michael Pennington as King Lear
Michael Pennington as King Lear

The weight of huge responsibility lies on the shoulders of actors and directors when the precious cargo of a Shakespearean classic is put in their hands to stage.

Plays such as King Lear, the latest production of which started its run at Royal and Derngate this month, are retold because their themes still resonate with audiences - 400 years after they were first penned.

On the surface, Shakespeare’s tragedies are blood-soaked hellscapes riddled with dysfunctional families, twisted characters and the inevitable pile of dead bodies that becomes ever higher as the story edges closer to its conclusion.

King Lear is among the darkest and bleakest of the lot, and this is certainly reflected in the new staging I saw in Northampton last night.

Although directors often pander to the taste of modern audiences by drawing out any scrap of humour that can be even slightly insinuated in the Bard’s now famous text, humorous moments are few and far between in Max Webster’s interpretation.

The scarcity of lighter moments made the play difficult to watch, but only because it stripped the story back to the stark bones of its central messages; a feeling reflected in the minimalist staging.

The tale is one of King Lear (played by Michael Pennington), a tyrannical father who puts his three daughters to a verbal test in which they must declare their love for him. Goneril (Catherine Bailey) and Regan (Sally Scott) manage to convince him of their feelings, but Cordelia (Beth Cooke) refuses to the play the game - prompting an explosion of annoyance from Lear.

The consequences are devastating as Lear cuts off Cordelia and renounces his kingdom to Goneril and Regan, only to find that as he becomes more frail in mind and body, their treatment of him is less than he would have expected of loving daughters.

The play is packed with examples of accomplished acting. As expected from such a Shakespearean veteran, Pennington delivers a complex King Lear capable of fast and frightening extremes of volatile hatred and childlike softness, as the power shifts from parent to children.

Pennington plays Lear as flawed and unlikeable, but we also see the character as fragile and vulnerable - completely open to abuse by his mental and physical weakness. This interpretation is a strong reminder of how human beings can treat each other in today’s world; both politically and within personal relationships.

Other quality performances came from Catherine Bailey and Sally Scott, who portrayed the vicious older sisters in an unflinching light.

I would recommend this production to audiences, but with a word of warning that the content is quite violent and graphic in one particular scene. Booking advice recommends that it is suitable for those aged 12 and above.

King Lear will end its run at the Royal on Saturday April 23. Visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk or call the box office on 01604 624811 to book tickets.