Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
King Lear is fundamentally a play about intragenerational power struggles, and Exeter University Shakespeare Company’s powerful performance, directed by Megan Shepherd and Matt Smith, explores the intricacies of jealousy, love and madness in a remarkably insightful way. The close environment of the cathedral setting allows the audience to take on the role of Lear’s court, almost becoming part of the painful deterioration of the kingdom.
The opening scene centres around Lear (Will Davies) who stands majestically over a map of his kingdom while his three daughters sit in judgement before him. First Goneril (Coco Brown) and then Regan (Meg Howe), in a suitably superfluous fashion, profess their unparalleled love for their father to earn an equal share of his land. Then Lear’s favourite daughter Cordelia (Roshi Cowen) admits that she loves him as much as she should, but cannot bring herself to spout meaningless flattery, incurring her father’s “wrath”. Davies’ blind rage perfectly fills the space with the King’s anguish at the loss of his daughter, compounded by his lack of patriarchal control, reaching a crescendo of chilling fury. The strained dynamic between Lear and his remaining daughters is encapsulated by the bargaining scene where Brown and Howe each stand at one end of the map and Lear, already showing signs of weakness, is forced to stumble between them as they witheringly whittle down his retinue. This pivotal scene forces Lear to acknowledge his impotence and flee into the wilderness while Brown and Howe assume the position of absolute power with admirable ease, commanding the stage that Lear has vacated.
Alongside this main plot, King Lear portrays another familial struggle, between the Earl of Gloucester (James Stevenson) and his two sons. Interestingly, Edgar and Edmund have been recast as Eleanor (Holly Fitzpatrick) and Elizabeth (Lizzie Connick), allowing for a more direct comparison with Lear’s own daughters. Gloucester’s initial role as a slightly confused old man blossoms brilliantly into the visible inner conflict of loyalty. David Joutsikoski (as the Duke of Cornwall) and Howe enact the wonderfully traumatic blinding scene ruthlessly, fully driving home the tragic nature of the play.
Fitzpatrick portrays Eleanor with an immensely impressive range, from aristocratic and rational, to crazy and humorous, and possibly even elicits more comedic value than the fool. Her relationship with her father reaches the perfect balance of love and tragedy in the poignant scene where Stevenson attempts to fall off the cliffs of Dover.
The relatively minimalist set and costumes allow the characters to fully explore the despondency and despair evoked by the play, while the use of the raised dais at one end and the map stretching down into the audience forces us into the centre of the action from the very beginning. Equally, the cathedral setting lets the characters’ shadows loom onto the walls and beautifully echoes the numerous powerful speeches in the play. Although it would probably be wise to bring a blanket to the performance as the wilderness can get a bit chilly!
ShakeCo have challenged the notions of gender and power in King Lear with hugely impressive results and the audience remains captivated throughout the tension, betrayal and violence until the play’s striking denouement – I would definitely recommend going to see this performance.
King Lear is performing at Exeter Cathedral until 1st Feb.
Photo Credits: Harry Brewer Photography