By Tom Barry
Lear, the York Drama Society’s offering in this year’s York International Shakespeare Festival, is a conflicted production, combining a traditional interpretation of the legendary tragedy with several notable alterations. First and foremost, the ‘genderswapping’ of Lear from King, to Queen, a change that is conspicuous for the lack of impact that it makes upon the tone of the piece. Director Chloe Gamble has not set out to remake the wheel, and in doing so, proves that even the most famous masculine role can be portrayed equally well by a female performer without debasing the foundation of its setting and psyche.
Most impressive was the entire cast’s respect for the text and the strength of their technique, roundly exhibiting a measure and control with which student plays are not always endowed; even in the echo chamber of St. Olave’s Church, their exchanges and asides cut clearly through the cold air in all but the most emotionally wrought scenes, wherein the meaning is conveyed more so by atmosphere than language. Considerable restraint with regard to technical embellishment (although this may have been necessitated by the inflexibility of the venue) left the attention fixed squarely on the actors, who I congratulate on the economy of their movement in the confined space. This allows Amelia Hamilton as Lear their Queen to preside over the production, chewing the scenery with obvious glee.
There is a bleak contrast between Lear’s descending sanity and the apparent firmness of purpose with which the other characters conduct themselves, despite being even more self-deluded. The character of Lear is compelling for being unstraightforward, beginning as a petty vainglorious tyrant and by the close, begging for our compassion as she surveys the losses she has suffered.
It was befitting that Lear should have been performed within a place of worship littered with iconography; its author is all but sanctified, the play itself a cornerstone of the English dramatic tradition, and it must wrestle with iconic moments such as the blinding of Gloucester and Lear’s taunting of the storm. The production is carried by the cast’s commitment to their parts, and they should feel proud to have pulled together in staging a notoriously difficult play.
Lear by William Shakespeare is performing in the Drama Barn this Saturday and Sunday at 7:30pm. Tickets are available online and on the door (£4/5).