King Lear was first performed a couple of years after Scotland’s James VI had travelled down from Edinburgh to be crowned as England’s James I, following the death of Queen Elizabeth. It was an uneasy union of the two kingdoms, and James’s pronounced Scottish accent didn’t go down too well in some quarters. Four hundred years later, David Cameron – somewhat surprisingly, considering his surname – is warning us to beware again of too much Scottish influence at the seat of government. And (for a week anyway) we again have an opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies performed on stage.
The play is actually set in ancient, pre-Christian Britain, but Shakespeare created for his audience a world similar in many ways to their own: full of dukes and earls jockeying for position and gossiping Wolf Hall-style about who’s in or out of favour at the royal court. The tale of an aged monarch whose decision to abdicate plunges his kingdom into chaos had obvious relevance for a country which had a ruler of uncertain authority and which was sliding slowly towards the full-scale civil war that would erupt a few decades later. In 2008 the Everyman’s memorable modern dress production (with Pete Postlethwaite in the title role) was one of many that have propelled us further forward in time, portraying a society torn apart by civil unrest and gangs of marauding hooligans.
Now Jonathan Miller’s excellent Northern Broadsides production at the Playhouse reverts to a more traditional approach, with the cast in Elizabethan costume. It’s a reminder that this is an early 17th century play, and resisting the temptation to impose on it a modern ‘interpretation’ has the added advantage of allowing the strength of Shakespeare’s compelling narrative, subtle characterisation and masterful language to speak for itself.
Miller also reminds us that the play depicts a family tragedy as well as the collapse of a kingdom. The famous opening scene, in which a deluded Lear rejects his loving daughter Cordelia and fatally hands over power to her scheming, ambitious sisters Goneril and Regan, is often presented as a grand spectacle but here the discord is on a more personal, domestic scale. As Lear, Barrie Rutter’s Yorkshire accent similarly underlines the king’s ordinary humanity, and those of other members of the cast further ground us in reality. Rutter’s performance brilliantly captures the many sides of Lear’s character that emerge as the play unfolds. Initially an imperious king and a tyrannical father, loss of power and the treachery of his daughters unbalance his mind but make him a wiser, humbler man. Helen Sheals and Nicola Sanderson are suitably chilling as Goneril and Regan, progressively outdoing each other in malevolence and cold-heartedness. Catherine Kinsella conveys superbly Cordelia’s quiet strength, and Al Bollands (making his professional debut) is impressive as the villainous Edmund, who in the play’s other demonstration of the complexities of family relationships smilingly betrays his father and his brother. King Lear is renowned for its bleakness, but it’s to this production’s credit that it finds humour in some unexpected places, including in the early scenes John Branwell’s Gloucester, played as a bombastic, ill-tempered northerner strangely reminiscent of John Prescot.
Shakespeare’s longer plays can sometimes seem sprawling and unfocused on stage, but Jonathan Miller – with the help of a few judicious cuts – keeps the action swift and the development of the storyline is strong and clear. This is an outstanding King Lear and well worth catching during its short run at the Playhouse.
King Lear continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 2 May. For more information, click HERE.