Lear, Union Theatre, London – review

In Phil Willmott’s new staging there is a word missing from the title of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The omission is deliberate, not accidental – in Willmott’s production Ursula Mohan takes the role of the sovereign who, in losing everything, gains self-knowledge. Moreover, this is not a female actor playing a man: Mohan plays the monarch as a queen. The casting yields some interesting changes, though there are losses as well as gains in this production.

There’s a subtly different tenderness between mother and daughter, which Willmott emphasises at the outset by having the queen and Cordelia play the piano together in a scene of domestic harmony. The duet becomes a little leitmotif in the staging – Lear also plays “Chopsticks” with the Fool, and near the end, when Cordelia is restored to her mother, she plays the piano to confirm her identity in the queen’s now wandering mind. The savage rejection of Cordelia feels particularly brutal, coming from a mother’s mouth, and the curse of sterility flashed at Goneril acquires an even crueller sting coming from a mother to the daughter she has borne.

There’s a particular social discomfort, too, at seeing a once-dignified woman carousing with her retinue, making befuddled advances to a servant and finally wandering, disorientated, in her nightdress. Mohan poignantly conveys her character’s flickering sanity, suggesting that her emotional volatility is distressing to her as well as to those around her, and her Fool (Joseph Taylor) seems to occupy a role between carer and conscience. This staging powerfully portrays the callousness with which the frail elderly can be treated.

But though moving in particulars, the production doesn’t quite get across the scale of the tragedy: the ending is touching, rather than harrowing. It is performed in three acts – the first two promenade – and the text is cut. This makes for intimacy, involving the spectators – implicating them even, so emphasising the importance of responsibility. But what is much less clear is the shape of the play, as it spirals down to the heath, drawing together the play’s dispossessed, and out again. One major problem is that Willmott cuts the role of Kent completely, losing the crucial significance of his loyalty in adversity.

A good Gloucester (Richard Derrington) and fine Edgar (Tom McCarron) make their journey moving, while Rikki Lawton creates a cheeky, cynical, sexy Edmund. It is certainly a production that has insights to offer, but it doesn’t encompass the full scope of this great, bleak tragedy.


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