Writer and performer Susanna Hamnett sparkles in this one-woman performance of King Lear. With no more than three mobile curtained screens behind her and a lavender-scented water sprayer at hand, she inhabits a host of different characters and personas to deliver the story. She starts the narration as Lear’s jester but continues to transition seamlessly through all of the other major parts: Lear himself, Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Oswald & various Dukes to name but a few.
Nearly Lear is engaging, funny, nuanced and moving. Punctuated with several asides to, and physical interaction with, the audience, Hamnett also delivers a significant amount of the original Shakespearean speech. She weaves together the core plot in such an animated way that the story springs to life in front of your eyes. Lear is, of course, a tragedy and can be overwhelmingly serious, but Hamnett’s take provides light relief with audience engagement whilst neatly returning to the subject before the humour is overstretched.
But really, this is a story about the relationship between a father, a daughter, and grief. Her narrative, accompanied by a warm smile and slight giggle, is punctuated frequently with the phrase “as my dear dad said, god rest his soul…,” and the scene where Cordelia and Lear are reunited is poignant and heartwarming. And then there’s the unexpected final scene: no spoilers here, but emotional doesn’t cover it.
There is much to applaud here. First, a relatively long Shakespearean tragedy is delivered on point within 1 hour and 20 minutes. The plot is clear, the drama compelling and the characterisation outstanding: no complicated staging and props, but just a story told well with humour & drama where appropriate. I would really encourage anyone of any age who is nervous about Shakespeare to see this.
Second: the acting. A masterclass. Hamnett transforms in front of our eyes, at speed, mid-conversation. And there’s never confusion as to who she is playing. She could be 20 or 70, I have absolutely no idea. It is easy to deliver a Shakespearean tragedy that runs to several hours and is dry and overblown. It is much harder to edit the various source material to construct a drama that is captivating and exciting whilst staying true to the original. Hamnett has comfortably achieved this.
Rumour has it there’s another production of Lear playing in a slightly more famous venue about 6 miles east of the Playground. I’m not one to tell you how to spend your money, but this has to be a considerably better option.
Written by Susanna Hamnett and Edith Tankus
Performed by Susanna Hamnett
Directed by Edith Tankus
Additional Direction/Stage Management by Steve MacGregor
Original Lighting Design by Michelle Ramsay
Set Design by Lindsay Anne Black
Film by David Parker
Nearly Lear plays at Playground Theatre until 25 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.