King Lear – Mill Theatre – Review by Keith Thompson
Performance Times 10am, 1.30pm
Evening Performances at 7.30pm:
Thursday 12th October
Wednesday 25th October
Thursday 26th October
Stop me if this sounds familiar…Aging egomaniac demands abject loyalty from his followers. Listens only to those who flatter him. Promotes falsehoods and denounces truth. Is in charge of an entire country…Will I go on? Productions that identify King Lear as Donald Trump are already proliferating and even though this effort from The Mill Theatre doesn’t intentionally play that card, it is impossible to avoid the big orange elephant in the room. Is it possible for a man so narcissistic to be redeemed? Can one so blinded to truth see clearly again? Shakespeare suggests one way, but it is far from pleasant.
Lear plans to divide his kingdom between his daughters, their shares dependent on how much they convince him of their love. His youngest, “lacking that glib and oily art” to flatter and deceive, bursts his bubble by speaking plainly and truthfully. Enraged, Lear disowns her and exiles his most loyal servant, Kent, setting in motion the destruction of the state, his family and ultimately his own sanity.
The best thing that can be said about this current production is that it makes us think. Despite a few missteps, in particular the moments of animalistic movement and sound which are either underdeveloped or unnecessary, Geoff O’Keefe’s direction is clear and his pacing excellent. He teases from the script the essential themes that Shakespeare was grappling with in his own day and that are now once again incredibly relevant to us – in particular, the importance of facing hard and ugly truths over comforting lies.
The old saying goes that by the time you are old enough to play King Lear, you are too old to play King Lear. The role is certainly a mountain to climb, daunting for any actor, yet it is hard to escape the feeling that Philip Judge never quite scales its heights. In the court scene he gives us a petulant prima-donna rather than a tyrant and I never got the sense that Lear was disintegrating. That being said, his reconciliation with Clodagh Mooney Duggan’s noble Cordelia has lost none of its power.
The show boasts some other truly affecting moments. Tom Moran’s Edgar tenderly reaching out to touch his blinded father Gloucester’s face (Damien Devaney) and later beautifully recounting his death. Sharon McCoy also gives us a rounded and at times sympathetic Goneril.
In the storm, Lear cries out “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” and certainly he suffers much at the hands of his daughters and the elements to which he is subjected. But it is the latter part of his quote which is more vital for a production to get right. It is Lear’s vanity, his poor judgement, his Trumpian insecurity, that has created the situation in which he finds himself. Shakespeare’s major point in the play is to speak truth to power and humility to vanity: “Take physic pomp, expose thyself to feel as wretches feel.” It is only by seeing Lear in his madness and in his grotesque, violent pomp that the true worth and impact of his journey to redemption becomes clear.
And that I suppose is the crux of the problem with this production. Lear is a play where everything breaks. Gloucester’s observation “The bond cracked ‘twist son and father.” Lear’s feeble question, “Will’t break my heart?” and later Kent’s cry of “Break, heart, I prithee break.” At the end, Kent observes that “All’s cheerless, dark and deadly,” yet he is standing on a stage that shows almost no scars of the tumult instigated at the start of the play. In this production nothing feels sufficiently broken.