Review: King Lear

Review: King Lear

Despite the small niggling issues present here and there, UCLU Drama Society’s production of King Lear is an exciting and skilful show that you won’t want to miss.


UCLU Drama Society’s production of King Lear, directed by Oliver Marsh, and produced by Hayley Russell, arrives in a slick package: glossy promotional materials, sold out performances, and a staging at the RADA Studios. Indeed, this is somewhat fitting – given the conceptual idea of transporting Shakespeare’s seminal work into the 2008 financial crisis, but with the seeming aesthetic of American Psycho.

Before I start my review of the play itself, which I found fantastic, I do have a few gripes about the je ne sais quoi of the piece. Unfortunately, although the suits, desks, and phones make it clear that some sort of business is the backdrop for the action, the only way I can foresee somebody realising or understanding the actual context mentioned above is by reading the programme – which details the process and ideas behind the show. There is nothing in the show itself to suggest a specific time or place, other than an office. Furthermore, with the text appearing to be verbatim Shakespeare (save a few muttered fucks and the like for the sake of modernity – as is the trend these days), there’s a lot that just isn’t relevant conceptually. What, exactly, in the financial crisis setting, is France supposed to symbolise? What are the armies made up of? Why, perchance, would a bank owner divest his property to his daughters in the midst of a financial crisis? Or, is this supposed to be a precursor to the whole debacle – in which case, wouldn’t destabilisation be incredibly unlikely given that the play ends with Edgar becoming king (or the leader of the company) – and no actual monetary scandal would have taken place? Perhaps the real question should be: ‘Is this production set in the 2008 financial crisis solely to be pretentious?’.

There is also an excellent visualisation and design of a simple ‘Lear Capital Partners’ logo that would help in sticking with the theme, but is featured only on A) the event’s Facebook page; and B) very small writing on a piece of paper in the show that no reasonable person would be expected to notice. And, to a fair amount of chagrin, the set design itself seems a little slipshod – what exactly are the scattered tin foil pillars and door arches supposed to represent? Windows? Walls? A Primary 4 art project?

Anyway… I’ve seemed pretty critical so far, but the fact is, I really enjoyed this production and felt like it has a lot going for it at many moments throughout.

The plot, for those of you who don’t already know (yep, that was me before tonight) concerns the eponymous title character; who intends to divide up his empire between his three daughters, or rather two after a brief altercation. However, as one can imagine from a Shakespearean tragedy, this doesn’t go too well for the king – who begins to devolve into madness. The action may be hard to follow for those who aren’t already familiar due to the source being pretty complex: fast and accented delivery combined with the lethargy of Early Modern English (never was much of a Shakespeare fan in school) will make it a challenge. But a quick wiki summary of most of the preceding action up until violence erupts will prove immensely helpful (if not immediately, due to the various gender changes of certain characters in this particular iteration).

There’s a thick, palpable atmosphere throughout the performance – and the audience is wholly enraptured. The cast, although occasionally prone to over-acting (it’s Shakespeare though, so I suppose over-acting is a non-existent concept) is routinely fantastic. Lear himself, played by Benjamin Teare, is at once enigmatic, haunting, and possessed of a frantic energy. Indeed, he is often accompanied on stage by the wonderfully eccentric – and slightly ’80s camp – portrayal of the Fool by Daniel Catarino da Silva. Unfortunately, the whimsy is sometimes carried too far, resulting in some nigh on incomprehensible deliveries – but the mystical aura of an idiot savant seems perfectly fitting for the pivotal role.

Elsewhere, the Three Sisters (Florence Woolley, Polly Creed, and Hansy Shore) put perfectly scheming efforts into playing alternatively traitorous characters (oh, and did I mention they beautifully sang a capella as well?) who really shape the action. More minor characters such as Bella Driessen’s Gloucester and Helena Smith’s Edgar also help to keep the quality of performance incredibly strong – showing an almost hyperactive level of passion throughout – and do not let up until the final curtain call. Special mention should go to James Cassir for his at times spine-tingling portrayal of the complicated Kent.

The audio-visual nature of the production is, at times, capable of evoking the locked-up emotions that most bigger-budgeted efforts aim to provide the key to. In scenes set in the misty moors, strobe flashes, torchlight, and a swirling immersive soundscape curated by Dan Jacobson and Jenny Wark envelop the audience in a lonely, cold, and hopeless place – although perhaps greater efforts should have been made to coordinate the ends of the tracks (the soundscapes don’t finish on a looping note, so the loop itself is noticeable; and, at times, non-diegetic noise cuts out seemingly at random with no fading). When the killing comes, and of course it does come, a lot of thought has been put into engineering bloodshed – a fact that drops like a ton of bricks upon an entirely unsuspecting audience. The eye-gouging of Gloucester stages a Tarantino-esque piece of visual comedy – whereby a pencil is sharpened in a bulky electronic sharpener for an extended period of time, before later being pushed into a human face. And, doubly unexpectedly, this is accompanied with vigorous spurts of blood that just about land on the audience (not sure how they got blood capsules to squirt that far, but it was damn effective). Having an audience audibly recoiling in shock and gasping, with genuine feelings of discomfort in this scene, was perhaps, for me, the highlight of the night. It is the moment in which we rapidly switch from humour to horror, in which we empathise with the pain felt by the infliction of injury, and in which we can also enjoy some mastery of practical special effects.

And, naturally, that blood-letting continues – resulting in fight scenes with a definite edge of realism, so much so that the audience is wincing with every blow. Becky Kells’s costume design is the perfect realisation of high-class financial workplace attire – but I did wonder how easily fake blood washes off. Is a kilt machine washable? Who knows?

So, all in all, the detractors I mentioned at the start of the review seem to pale in comparison upon discussion of the positive aspects of this production. It’s fantastically acted; palpably thick with atmosphere; and possessive of a level of technical mastery in sound, lighting, and practical effects that exceeds the expectations of the skill level of a student play. Despite the small niggling issues present here and there, this is an exciting and skilful show that you won’t want to miss!



Image credits: Dante Kim Photography

James Witherspoon