Review: King Lear – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

In the now infamous words of Ann Widdecombe, there is ‘something of the night’ about West Yorkshire Playhouse’s King Lear. In what, in many ways is Shakespeare’s darkest play, this is appropriately a nocturne Lear, played out in moonlight and shadow.

In a pagan land influenced by seasons and nature it seems an apt setting and in Ian Brown’s striking production the moon itself almost takes on a character of its own, looming large as it tracks across a pitch black backdrop.

This Lear is, in many ways, a highly traditional Lear, no radical retelling here, just a strong focus on character and verse.

Despite its traditional approach this is no minimalist or staid production. Staged with an almost operatic feel, a combination of classical costume, stark setting and lighting combine to provide a sumptuous yet subtle setting. In a slowly shifting colour palette, the piece moves from sumptuous regal red to more subtle shades as the mood darkens. An initially simple set also slowly transforms, mirroring the pieces revelations.

It is a subtlety that is reflected in Tim Pigott-Smith’s gripping portrayal of Lear, genuinely hurt and confused by his daughter’s betrayals yet still full of rage and torment. It makes for an achingly human Lear, vulnerable yet with a steely core.

There are however fine performances across the entire company.

Neve McIntosh and Hedydd Dylan as the cold, calculating, Goneril and Regan, together with Olivia Morgan as exiled sister Cordelia, work well. There is also impressive work from Sam Crane as Edgar and Tim Frances as Kent. While Richard O’Callaghan’s Fool lacks some vocal diction in his fast -paced delivery, it is compensated by well observed physicality.

Ruari Murchison’s design works well to frame the piece, providing a simple yet regal backdrop, complete with Arthurian overtones. Richard Taylor’s score provides an evocative accompaniment, while Chris Davey’s lighting casts atmospheric moonlit shadow across the piece.

There has been a rush of King Lear’s recently and it is inevitable, however hard one tries, to make comparisons between the productions. While this is more of an ensemble showing than Derek Jacobi’s recent Donmar Lear, and with less technical wizardry than Greg Hick’s RSC monarch, it is a rich, tightly focused approach that delivers much and arguably gives a more rounded view of a court in crisis. This Lear is no one-man show, instead a cohesive ensemble digging deep into the complex interplay between Crown, State and family. A noble, elegant and powerful Lear.

This is a review of a preview performance at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Press Night is Wednesday 28 September.

Photo: Hedydd Dylan and Tim Pigott-Smith. Photo by Keith Pattison

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