As usual with a Shakespeare tragedy, the body count, by the end, is high.
Mercifully for us, most of the mayhem happens off-stage, as did the eye-gouging. Even so, the body count reaches seven dead and one blinded, but hey, these were different times and life was cheap.
The stage is set with a table, a chair and two benches, and then stripped back to nothing.
The actors, mostly in black, were left with no support other than the words and occasional special effects. Such minimalism invites us to concentrate on the poetry.
The result was an evening of theatre that would have sent many in the audience home to take down the Complete Shakespeare and revise just what they thought they knew of King Lear: “Wheel of fire”, “a case of eyes”, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods ...”. How did our national genius come up with these startling collocations?
Barry Rutter as Lear never missed a beat with the words. He enunciated precisely and came off best in his duel with the thunder. However, I was not convinced by his descent into madness, although it is difficult to see how any contemporary actor can pull off the role as Shakespeare wrote it.
Helen Sheals as Goneril and Nicola Sanderson as Regan veered between self-righteous outrage at their father’s extravagance and outright malevolent joy at the misfortune of others.
Any sympathy a modern audience may have had with the two girls, and their impatience with their father, rapidly evaporated as they descended into corruption.
Catherine Kinsella’s Cordelia was as sweet as a Cordelia should be.
Unfortunately, the episodic nature of this production, with scenes detached one from another, almost like a sketch show, rendered her very much a peripheral figure.
The key comic scenes, of course, are between Lear and the Fool (Finetime Fontayne). However, the biggest laughs of the evening went to Jos Vantyler as Oswald who could extract humour even from a line like, “I can hear him coming.”
Director Jonathan Miller has given us a spare, even austere, King Lear that works well as a production in the round.
It is on until Saturday April 25 with performances Thursday April 23 at 1.30pm and 7pm, Friday April 24 at 7.30pm and Saturday at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.
Review by Mike Tilling