Review: King Lear, Birmingham REP

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare!

Review: King Lear, Birmingham REP

Philip Whitchurch (Earl of Gloucester) and Don Warrington (King Lear). All pics by Jonathan Keenan

An ageing parent wants to spend their last days in the warmth and security provided by the love of their children. So they divide their land and wealth between the offspring - only to discover that it really is a nest of vipers they have created.

They disown one child because she hasn’t shown them the respect they think was due, and the other two, jealous of their sibling, set about depriving the parent of whatever dignity they had and have them thrown out into a winter storm, caring little whether they live or die.

That, roughly, is the scenario of Shakespeare’s King Lear, but it is one which overshadows many parent-child relationships, especially these days when so many parents survive long into old age, and is ample evidence to support the quote from this play which states: “How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
to have a thankless child!”

This joint production between Talawa Theatre, Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre and Birmingham REP has much in its favour and gets to grips with the complex plot quite effectively.

Signe Beckmann’s simple set and Johanna Town’s lighting scheme help ensure that the story isn’t obscured by unnecessary detail but Michael Buffong’s production somehow doesn’t deliver the heartbreaking catastrophe of a king’s downfall and descent into madness. There were times when some of the lines were met with titters from the audience – not always helpful when trying to portray one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

While the cast delivered their lines securely, quite often some of the most important ones were simply thrown away - especially in Lear’s wilderness speech. Some of the cast did not project their words clearly, although the REP’s acoustics are not always helpful and not all of the actors displayed a complete familiarity with Shakespeare’s language.

Playing King Lear is the pinnacle of many actors’ ambitions and Don Warrington’s portrayal catches many of the character’s elements. Although he doesn’t command the stage and make himself the centre of attention, he succeeds in being both arrogant and impetuous.  His self-conceit blinds him to the short-comings of others and puts him in a situation where his two daughters, having gained power, need to deprive him of his dignity. It’s a strong performance, but not one which attracts the audience’s complete sympathy.

Alfred Enoch, as Edgar, Wil Johnson, as Kent, Philip Whitchurch, as Gloucester, and Miltos Yerolemou as the Fool, all bring out their characters extremely well, while Rakie Ayola, as Goneril, Debbie Korley, as Regan, and Pepter Lunkuse, as Cordelia, play the warring daughters.

King Lear reigns at the REP until Saturday

By Jerald Smith

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