King Lear

Tue 17th – Sat 21st January 2012


Lise McNally

at 15:01 on 18th Jan 2012



Charlie Parham’s Lear was achingly close to being the best thing I’ve seen in Cambridge. Beautifully conceived, excellently cast and powerfully executed, the production is more than worth both your money and your time. What was slightly frustrating, however, was that with all this potential, a few shortcomings crept in to undermine a tremendous effort. Perhaps it is tragically apt for a play which seeks to explore the limits of aging and despair, that in some aspects, the ETG’S Lear seemed to give up too soon.

Moments of directorial genius flashed into life, only to flicker out half-heartedly. For instance, the use of strobe lighting as paparazzi cameras before the court scenes (in the vein of the RSC’s 2008 Hamlet) might have been used to draw out the dangerous dimension of suspicion and surveillance in the play. However, since little or nothing was done to include this sense in the actual scenes, the decision just seemed a little odd.

Likewise, Parham’s commitment to what he calls “a production driven by language” was a case of so near and yet so far. Some masterful moments played with the power of words - I particularly liked how the daughters’ professions of love were produced out of handbags or pockets, in the style of Oscar-acceptance speeches. Goneril (Mary Galloway) and Regan (Emma Hall)’s forethought and artificiality contrasted dramatically with Cordelia tearing her speech in half. Yet for all that, there seems little use in emphasising the power of language when some of the cast are too quiet or mumbling to hear. Tom Russell was a particular culprit of this: although delivering an interestingly psychotic Edmund, his pacing was too rushed at times, taking away from what would have been an effective performance.

However, perhaps this is nit-picking. The production was at times so good that it just seems a shame to let some easily-correctable flaws undermine it. Sonia Tong’s set was masterfully conceived, with ornamental archways twisting into knarled old trees - a fitting symbol for the thin divide between civilisation and chaos. Although the set bore the inevitable marks of a touring production (the wonky cardboard throne springs to mind) the scruffiness actually worked in the play’s favour, creating an intriguing shabbiness around the power which its protagonists are willing to scheme and die for.

At the centre of this deteriorating stage, Theo Hughes-Morgan’s Lear was nothing short of remarkable, and not only because he carried off the physicality of old age effortlessly. His Lear was one capable of vicious cruelty (the scene where he curses Goneril with sterility was intensely uncomfortable) and yet still able to elicit all the camaraderie due to an indignant king deprived of his drinking buddies, or the sympathy owed to a lonely old man clutching his dead child. Vocally, it was genius: nuanced, musical, gruff or plummy as required. Jack Hudson (Gloucester) and Quentin Beroud (Kent) also deserve praise for bringing light and life to the older protagonists. Hudson in particular carried off the most effective character development of the night, with his hilarious dirty-old-man persona giving way convincingly to a man outraged by the evil he sees, and then despairing at what he will never see again.

Parham is undeniably a talented director, and I enjoyed many of the little touches he brought to the play. In particular, his decision to double Charlotte Hamblin as Cordelia and the Fool was brilliant. Not only did Hamblin deliver a hilarious, musical, imp-like Fool, but the distinctive red hair of both characters allowed the audience to associate Lear’s affection for his Fool with the displaced love for his lost daughter. Likewise, the Fool is hung in an ominous scene ending the first Act, grimly foreshadowing Cordelia’s inevitable fate.

If nothing can come from nothing, then the very remarkable “something” that is this production is a fitting testament to the hard work, insight and talent of its cast and crew. The result is a gritty, gorgeous and explosive production.


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