Directed by Claire Paddison and James Flood, and performed by the University of Leicester’s Theatrical Society, this King Lear production was an interesting exploration into some of the subtler elements of the characters. It was a new twist on an old classic, and reinstated my love for both directing and King Lear itself.
The directors clearly took some excellent inspiration for their creation, from the renowned director Michael Attenborough, who’s own version of King Lear was powerfully thoughtful. The addition of the prostitute in Edgar’s entrance scene strongly highlighted his initial hedonistic morals, which will digress as the play goes on. Furthermore, the inclusion of Lear kissing Goneril’s forehead (when he is flattered) and the perversion of this kiss (when he is angry) was a nice callback to Attenborough’s perverse kiss (and it was far less uncomfortable to watch).
With King Lear having such a varied, memorable array of characters, the actors had to meet pretty high expectations, as is often the case for Shakespeare performances. My favourite portrayal was that of Regan: although sometimes the less memorable sister, the actress took a completely new turn with her that I adored. Regan was far more powerful in this version, using her sexuality to her full advantage – mostly with Cornwall, but notably with Oswald, in an attempt to persuade him. Lear’s actor made a similarly innovative choice with his character: as an old man, Lear is often depicted as frail from the very start, but this Lear was far more sprightly, and this excellently emphasised his deterioration throughout the acts. Edgar’s transformation during the play was slightly less intentional – he seemed very confused and unsure of himself, at the start – but he pulled it back during his Poor Tom scenes, which were a privilege to behold. The actor for Edmund was exactly what one would expect and love about Edmund: wry, cock-sure and able to deliver hilarious side-glances to the audience. The last notable mention would have to be that of Cornwall’s servant, who eventually comes to betray him: the actor took a sometimes overlooked and small role, and made sure that the audience remembered him, through his conflicted expressions (during the build-up) and explosive passion.
Paddison and Flood made their interpretation particularly memorable, however, through the subtle symbolism conveyed through their prop usage and placement. The flags of each castle were, of course, practical in signposting the location to the audience, but their underlying symbolism through choice of colour and motif was a nice nod to those who were familiar with the play. Lear’s ripping of the map, when dividing up his kingdom, served to make the decision feel more important and finite, which I thought was a nice, eloquent touch. And, finally, the Mad!Lear entering with a shopping trolley, full of rubbish, was a marvellous way to demonstrate his demise and nidir of the wheel of fortune.
My only criticism – since no production can be perfect – was of the supposed ‘adaptation’ element; you would be right to wonder what part of it was an adaptation, because the audience experienced the same confusion. There were quiet hints throughout that this King Lear was taking place in the modern setting of a drug cartel – the beatboxing of the Fool’s songs; the piñata full of cocaine, snorted by the knights; the electric torches – and this could have made for a very interesting modern adaptation. But these elements weren’t explored much further: Lear was still a king, swords were used rather than modern weapons, and the actors still operated in a pagan world. I would have loved to have seen this narcotic elements accentuated even further – but, despite that, it was still an amazing production that absolutely did justice to the Shakespeare original.