Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

King Lear

William Shakespeare
Royal Exchange Theatre with Talawa Theatre Company in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre
01 April 2016 to 07 May 2016

Arriving to see the queue for returns at the Royal Exchange box office reminded me that the last time I saw this was probably for the Maxine Peake Hamlet nearly two years ago. Four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare can still be good box office.

And this is very good Shakespeare, worth queuing for. There are no imposed modern parallels, framing devices or sudden dance breaks as so often at the Royal Exchange; Michael Buffong returns to this unique theatre as a director with confidence in the play, his actors and his own ability as well as in the audience to understand the words and find their own interpretations without being spoon-fed someone else's ideas.

Don Warrington is a majestic Lear who doesn't rant and bark orders quite so much as some at the start. His lapses into irrationality are fairly subtle at first, becoming more obvious later. This Lear is likeable almost from the start, so his treatment by his elder daughters seems all the more terrible.

One of Lear's most important relationships is with his Fool, played here by the wonderful Miltos Yerolemou with great physical and verbal wit but also bringing out the great love he has for his master as he descends into madness and poverty. It's a very touching relationship. His loyal but wronged servant Kent is played with passion and often with humour by Wil Johnson.

In the parallel parental story, Philip Whitchurch is another very likeable character as Gloucester who is ill-used by his offspring, supported excellently by Alfred Enoch as noble Edgar and Fraser Ayres as his scheming bastard son Edmund.

The setting, designed by Signe Beckmann, has a medieval appearance but the sparsity of the set is complemented by the sumptuousness of the costumes. Lear almost fills the theatre with his grand costume on his first entrance. His daughters Goneril (Rakie Ayola) and Regan (Debbie Korley) have gorgeous dresses and incredible hair, while Cordelia (Pepter Lunkuse) goes from courtly maiden to warrior princess in the almost three hours between her entrances.

But the most impressive part is how well it all comes together. This is three and a half hours of intense, dialogue-heavy drama, but every element of the production is of the highest quality and has been designed to fit the overall production perfectly.

The sword fighting is convincing, as is the rather gruesome eye-gouging scene. The music carries the drama along so that it is barely noticed. Admittedly it was difficult to hear much of Lear's dialogue during the storm scene, but what a storm—and is it necessary to understand every word of this speech?

It's certainly a long play, but it keeps the attention with its perfect pacing, wonderful performances and clear, gimmick-free storytelling.

This is a fitting contribution to the Shakespeare 400 celebrations from the Royal Exchange, which is having a particularly good year in 2016.

Reviewer: David Chadderton


Comment by David Cunningham

King Lear is such a massive play that the sheer scale can overwhelm those involved and productions end up being no more than a pale effort to convey the script to the stage. Michael Buffong’s admirably confident and clear version avoids this pitfall. There is an overarching sense of a kingdom thrown into chaos and the unexpected consequences of actions running throughout. Everyone seems aware that momentous changes are underway and to be flinching at the likely outcome. Much comes from the unspoken reactions of the cast – Wil Johnson looking stunned by Lear’s decision to abdicate.   Miltos Yerolemou’s Fool is cowed and plainly terrified but driven by the compulsion to continue speaking truth unto those in power. The Fool’s relationship with King Lear is, as you say, very affectionate like that of a social worker or carer. Don Warrington’s virile Lear is a study in impotence – someone who begins the process of change and then is baffled by the outcome.

Comment by David Upton

Nowadays, of course, any potentate about to divide up his sovereign wealth fund within the family would seek out an offshore law firm to avoid unpleasantness.

Back in the days when King Lear ruled ancient Britain however, his blind trust meant something completely different and leads to all types of turmoil. Naturally enough, in the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death there are any number of Lears about, serving to underline the contemporary nature of a timeless warning about the fragility of humans dealing with power, wealth and instability of the mind.

For their take on the tale the Exchange team up with Birmingham Rep and Talawa Theatre, for a production that also marks the 30th anniversary of the latter’s role as the country’s leading black-led company. We are rewarded with a no-frills performance, honest to its dramatic time and place and slow and stately in its unfolding. It adds up to a production that is a little over three and a half hours long but you really might not want to miss a minute.

Much of the delight is in the devilish detail that director Michael Buffong affords to the relationships between characters, not least of course that of Lear and his Fool . Theirs is a close and touching patient-carer connection (as another David says) that transcends social standing and is painfully evident in Yerolemou’s rapt attention to his failing master. A genuinely moving moment of theatre.

Elsewhere some of the cast’s voices may not always be the clearest, but there’s still striking clarity to both narrative and action.

You would expect Manchester to lay on a good thunderstorm, indoors as well as out, and the Exchange does not disappoint with a torrent that marks the interval. It would take more than a brush and two industrial hoovers however to mop up the bloodbath amidst the second act.

If you like your Lear cooked slow, or rare, this is the one for you.

Comment by Robert Beale

Agreed this is an outstanding and powerful production, with great performances, and notable for the use of minimal but evocative resources to maximum effect (apart from the water, which brought back reminiscences of Singing In The Rain!). The music/sound, by Tayo Akinbode, was an outstanding aspect of it - sometimes just a tiny background hum, but helping create tension and unease and as effective when it stopped as when it began. The aspect of Don Warrington's Lear that struck home most for me was his slow realization that age-driven giving up of control, when it comes, is total and can be bleak. The disintegration of the mind he portrayed seemed utterly real, too.

And it was a genuinely colour-blind performance: just excellent acting all round. I liked Thomas Coombes (Oswald) and Fraser Ayres (Edmund) in particular.

Comment by Paul Genty

What makes this production rather special is that having given himself every advantage by ditching contemporary gimmicks and supposed "relevance", Buffong delivers a truly powerful a gripping night at the theatre.
And there's an all-round inch-perfect cast headed by Don Warrington as Lear, allowed to stretch himself in the role as never before partly because the support cast is so strong.