Pros: A snappy adaptation and an excellent lead performance by John McEnery.
Cons: The space is a bit chilly (although blankets are provided) and there are no toilets.
Often described as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, King Lear has been a star vehicle for many an established actor, like Simon Russell Beale at the National Theatre last year. Shoreditch company The Malachites have managed to bag John McEnery for their production at the historical site of the Rose Theatre.
The old King Lear, tired of the tedious business of ruling, decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Before he awards each of his children her piece of the country, however, he puts them to the test: they must describe how much they love him. While the two oldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, have no problem bagging Scotland and Cornwall, Lear’s favourite Cordelia refuses to copy her sisters’ false flattery. Lear banishes her and subsequently is left to the devices of his two eldest children, who are suddenly not quite as full of daughterly love anymore and plan to get rid of their father.
One of the most notable features of this adaptation is its running time, a modest 95 minutes without interval. On the upside, the show is short and snappy without losing much in terms of plot, and my attention didn’t wander for a single moment. (A real blessing: my last encounter with Lear was a highly conceptual, 3.5 hour production. I fell asleep twice and avoided the play for years after.) On the downside, the characters inevitably lose some of their depth and much of the humour is sacrificed as well. It’s an acceptable trade off however, especially considering the great cast who bring to bear an enormous power on the tiny performance space.
Claire Dyson is a fantastically icy Goneril, while Orla Jackson’s Regan is ruthless with a smile. William De Coverly makes Edmund a proper sordid villain, without going over the top with maniacal laughter or evil hand wringing. Predictably though, it’s John McEnery who comes out on top. Frail in his rage, sharp in his madness, McEnery’s Lear is full of contradiction and capable of evoking a wide range of emotions in the audience: you loathe him at some points, pity or love him at others. As a whole, the cast play with an unparalleled intensity. During some scenes the silences were so complete the only thing you could hear was the other spectators’ breathing. Getting an audience so absorbed in the play is certainly no mean feat.
In any other theatre, The Malachites’ King Lear would have been a fine production. The setting of the Rose Playhouse, however, kicks it up another notch. Probably best described as an archaeological dig with a small platform for performances above it, the Rose is one of the most atmospheric theatres in London. The fifty spectators are only feet away from the actors, except in the few scenes that are played out on the other side of the small lake down below that currently protects the foundations of the original Elizabethan theatre in which some of Shakespeare’s plays were first staged. A full excavation is planned for next year, after which the building will become a museum by day and theatre by night. Before then, however, visitors can do themselves a favour by coming prepared with warm clothing and an empty bladder (there are no toilets on site).
The main reason I wanted to see this particular production of King Lear was curiosity about the theatre; I’d been planning on visiting the Rose for a long time, but had never gotten round to it. That I’d get to see such an excellent show as well made the evening a double treat. Come for the venue, stay for the play. Or vice versa. In any case, this is a show you don’t want to miss.
Author: William Shakespeare
Adaptation & Direction: Benjamin Blyth
Production: The Malachites
Box Office: 020 7261 9565
Booking Link: http://www.rosetheatre.org.uk/events/king-lear-william-shakespeare-2015-04-11
Booking Until: 30 April 2013