YISF 2015: King Lear

York International Shakespeare Festival has so many events to choose from but Jonathan Miller and Northern Broadsides’ “King Lear is an indisputable highlight. Unknown reviews this exciting production, staged at the TFTV theatre, University of York’s Heslington East campus.

The clarity of delivery in the actors’ speech was truly astounding

Having seen an wonderful production of “King Lear at The Globe Theatre last summer, I was excited by the prospect of seeing it transformed again here in York. A review from the The Guardian describes the performance aptly: “Northern Broadsides can bring Shakespeare to life as gripping, accessible theatre for today simply by making the words sing“. The clarity of delivery in the actors’ speech was truly astounding. 

Upon entering the venue, I was struck by the minimalist set; a simple wooden frame dominated the stage: the sole indicator of any indoor scenes throughout the play. A further idiosyncrasy of this production was the surprisingly sinister appearance of Fine Time Fontayne (the Fool). His face was painted chalky white, with thick black lines framing his eyes and mouth. As a consequence of this ghoulish mask, the Fool served as an ever-present reminder of the escalating tragedy. And yet, while quick and candid in his criticism of Lear, he himself (as commentator) seemed separated from the plot. However, when he returned after the interval with his makeup smudged, exposing one eye completely from the black paint, there was a shift. Bereft of his parodic mask, his humanity was emphasised. As he trailed off-stage after Kent and Gloucester (carrying the befuddled King to a vehicle destined for Dover), he seemed to embody the lost “Boy” Lear so frequently called him. The next time we hear of the Fool is through Lear’s lament for his death: “My poor fool is hanged”. Although the King’s words could equally have been about his daughter, Cordelia (another unfortunate victim of the tragic plot) the Fool’s permanent absence from the stage after the Dover-bound exit certainly implies that it is a fate shared, and that the unmasked, human fool is as vulnerable to tragedy as everyone else. 

Light threw looming shadows of their figures against the up-stage wall behind; the tension was palpable

In addition to this, the company chose to make the assault of Cornwall against Gloucester less explicit. Some impressive back-lighting made silhouettes of their characters and distanced the audience from the horror. Similarly, as Gonoril, Albany, Regan and Edmund waited for a response to the trumpet call challenging Edmund’s honour, light threw looming shadows of their figures against the up-stage wall; the tension was palpable. Upon Edgar’s answer, some impressive slow-motion stage combat between the brothers ensued. Although I feel the purpose may have been better served without quite so many near-misses, the creativity of the vision and overall effect was very engaging. In addition to this, Edgar’s disguise as a “Bedlam beggar” was a particularly memorable costume choice: a crown of thorns, lashed skin and cream loincloth. When paired with his soliloquy about being “The low’st and most dejected thing of fortune” yet still standing “in esperance,” Edgar character becomes reminiscent of the Biblical story of Jesus upon his crucifixion. Despite his suffering, Christ arguably surpassed the fortune of his oppressors due to his awareness and acceptance of who he truly was. It certainly seems that Edgar approached a similar understanding through renouncing hollow flattery and esteem (on account of his title), and reorienting himself as a societal outcast.

Photography by Nobby Clark
Photography by Nobby Clark

Finally, although the success of the production was undoubtedly down to the creativity and talent of the entire cast, production team and director, I must mention the two actors who consistently delivered in Tuesday night’s performance. Jos Vantyler’s exaggerated, somewhat diva-like Oswald was both innovative and entertaining, and Barrie Rutter’s Lear was both powerful, and pathetic, in perfect measure. His venomous curse of sterility on Gonoril (Helen Sheals) was particularly unsettling.

This was a sensitive, emotive and thought-provoking rendition of King Lear, and the detail of the script was brought to life with unfailing novelty, subtlety and grace.

*King Lear is playing 12th-16th May at the TFTV, University of York.