Latest Review – King Lear [UK Tour] [Opera House, Manchester]


Opera House, Manchester

Until Saturday 4th June, 2016

Over the last decade alone we have seen numerous stars of stage and screen take on what is undeniably one of Shakespeare’s most challenging and harrowing roles, from the likes of Sir Ian McKellen (RSC), Simon Russell Beale (NT), Frank Langella (Chichester), Jonathan Price (Almeida) and Sir Derek Jacobi (a superlative Lear for the Donmar Warehouse). Now, in this 400th anniversary year (marking the death of Shakespeare) comes the turn of one of British theatre’s most experienced, esteemed and consistent thespians, Michael Pennington.

When the tired and ageing Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters – offering the largest share to the one who loves him the most – he unwittingly tears his family apart, sparking catastrophic civil war and destroying all that he has. Driven from his home, King Lear is wracked by madness as he battles a great storm. Yet with madness he finds reason, after betrayal he discovers loyalty and through his suffering a better world emerges.

Effectively staged against designer Adrian Linford’s bleak, grey-stone set, Max Webster’s new interpretation of the great tragedy makes excellent use of atmospheric lighting and sound (courtesy of Natasha shivers and Matthew Bugg, respectively) to enhance the play’s central themes of justice, betrayal and madness. One things that does become apparent is that Webster does seem to like his gimmicks and visual devices, which is fine, but whilst having Regan carry around a baby throughout the production does highlight her callousness and lack of maternal instinct, it doesn’t really add to the overall piece and becomes rather unnecessary. The storm sequence though is particularly well executed and proves a real highlight of the production, going a long way towards highlighting the cleverly hidden symbolism within and contrasting the on stage torrent with both the domestic turbulence in Lear’s life and his increasing confusion and turmoil in his own mind.

Pennington’s Lear is, as expected, a real standout in an often slightly muddled production. The experience of a five-decade-plus career is clear to see and his perfectly pitched, intelligent and beautifully delivered perfomance – from the gentle, nuanced scene with the blinded Gloucester to the raging power of the metaphorical storm – is a real treat.

In terms of the supporting cast, a few of the actors do appear a little stiff, with some struggling to project and unfortunately losing key dialogue in the process, however there are a number of excellent performances here, notably Joshua Elliott’s devoted, childlike Fool, Tom McGovern’s loyal Kent and Pip Donaghy’s moving Gloucester.

Due to the size of the relatively small ensemble cast (of just 14), double (and often) multiple casting is of course necessary, however it does all become a little confusing on certain occasions, particularly when key actors appear in lesser roles though still dressed very similarly to their principal characters.

Though dressed in modern military attire and set in a relatively vague 20th Century Britain, this may well be labelled as a modern new interpretation of the piece, but it is actually very traditional in its overall execution. This King Lear may unfortunately be a little uneven in patches, but Pennington’s Lear is the real heart and soul of the piece, and his expert performance is well worth the ticket price alone.

Running Time: 3 hours and 10-minutes (approx.), including one 20-minute interval.

Final Performance at the Opera House, Manchester: Saturday 4th June, 2016.

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.

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