By William Shakespeare
A Royal Exchange Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company Co-Production
Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Directed by Michael Buffong
Reviewer: Mary Moncrieff
O, reason not the need! That is, the need to get to the theatre to see Don Warrington take on the title role in one of Shakespeare’s most devastating tragedies King Lear at Birmingham Rep.
With a voice that at some moments comes at you over gravel and at others is a shattering falsetto, Warrington’s Lear is heart-breaking, difficult to watch and mesmerising. In a beautifully designed production Warrington is able to stand out, his commanding presence undeniable. Supported breathtakingly by Miltos Yerolemou’s Fool, the moments the two share the stage are electric.
The drumbeats of war within a clever sound design by Tayo Akinbode create an atmospheric tension that underscores the text nicely. Signe Beckmann’s simple but striking set design brings the audience into a world dominated by structure and rigidity that is being slowly chipped away. The circular floor design is used dizzyingly in some scenes, nearly hypnotising the viewers. Gorgeous costumes enliven the stark world of the play; the young women especially stand out with fur collars and elaborate hairstyles.
The company works hard in Warrington’s immense shadow. Alfred Enoch’s Edgar is certainly a performance that makes one lean in. His descent into madness is a physical triumph and his accent play (already evidenced by his superbly believable performance on American television) is impressive. The Earl of Gloucester, Philip Whitchurch, is loveable and moving. The audible reaction from the audience during his blinding proves both a touching performance and the success of a difficult bit of stagecraft.
Lear’s daughters are less compelling. Rakie Ayola’s Goneril stands out, her performance a subtle, simmering study of the machinations of politics. Her voice work, too, is supreme. Debbie Korley’s Regan and especially Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia leave something to be desired. Lunkuse seems to pale in the face of Warrington’s King. Both women’s voice work is less than intelligible at many key moments in the vastness of the Rep’s house. Korley is wont to contemporise much of the acting, which goes in direct contrast to the production’s spirit. Albany and Cornwall also miss the mark slightly as the former, played by Mark Springer, has a rigidity onstage that feels a bit too robotic, and the latter, played by Norman Bowman, inclines toward a rather stereotypical villainy without a tremendous amount of depth.
The purported villain, Edmund, is a little lacklustre in this production. Fraser Ayres reaches for comedy in various moments that feel very out of place alongside the moving performances from Whitchurch, Warrington and Enoch. His soliloquies do not reach the audience the way they ought to and one is left feeling too much like a voyeur. The humour is more appropriately left to Miltos Yerolemou’s Fool, who couldn’t possibly be more brilliant. The production also contains an interesting portrayal of Oswald, Goneril’s steward, leaning heavily on a more contemporary trope for the foppish character. Thomas Coombes handles the role well, though perhaps giving over a bit too often to camp in place of honesty.
Ensemble members Sam Glen, Sarah Quist, and Rhys Bevan are also notable in a seamless, present undertaking of the background characters. In such a play the messengers and serving women often contain vital information and these three are especially giving members of the ensemble. Miles Mitchell falters as he is rarely without a misplaced smile on his face, making his characters difficult to figure out.
As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this production reminds us that there is a reason his works have survived for so long. The text lives and breathes and when handled by such deft actors as Don Warrington and Miltos Yerolemou, it sings. For their work alone, this Lear is must-see.
Playing until 28 May 2016