king lear
Grumpy: Timothy West plays the title role in King Lear

Bristol Old Vic serves up some decent fights, eye popping eye gouging and a French invasion of Brexit Britain during a clash of generations in King Lear

King Lear. Bristol Old Vic.

From Paul Scholfield to Juri Jarvet there have been many great King Lears. Shakespeare’s “flawed pyramid of a play” as Kenneth Tynan once described the tragedy, is a vast mountain peak to climb every night for the actor cast as the former king of Britain. Some play the aged monarch as wildly mad others as suffering from dementia or as a neo demonic ex-dictator castrated of all his powers. Timothy West’s version in Tom Morris’s production at the Bristol Old Vic is more of a grumpy grandfather who despairs of the younger generation for their selfishness, greed and ruthlessness.

Torture: the eye-gouging scene didn't disappoint with its horror and gore
Torture: the eye-gouging scene didn’t disappoint with its horror and gore. Pic: Simon Annand

At 81 West looks and sounds the part as he resigns as head of state and splits the spoils between his daughters, “Conferring them on younger strengths while we, unburdened crawl toward death.” He takes umbrage at Cordelia’s honesty but despite his fit of pique somehow West doesn’t quite convince he’s left her without a penny – his stage demeanour is just a little too kindly.

Fight: there was some clever choreography in the battle scenes
Fight: there was some clever choreography in the battle scenes

He’s paired up with Stephanie Cole as the fool who also plays her role in the school of cosy old folks’ home acting. Amusing, surprising, but lacking the sharpness of the character in her subtle portrayal of Lear’s sidekick.

The production features Cole and West as the senior members of the cast together with David Hargreaves as Gloucester who had the feel of a very concerned academic who sees his institution falling apart and is frustrated to distraction as nobody listens to him.

Conflict: these two look like they are spoiling for a fight - and they are
Conflict: these two look like they are spoiling for a fight – and they are. Pic Simon Annand

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School students made up the rest of the cast providing energy, power and the edge that the play needs. Set within Anna Orton’s versatile minimalist set and strikingly lit by Rob Casey the play featured some decent fighting directed by Jonathan Howell and music and sound by Dave Price. With a large cast movement and choreography was vital to prevent traffic jams or confusion from one scene to another. Jane Gibson as movement director had her work cut out keeping the drama flowing with strong pieces of physical theatre – especially in the battles but also in the notorious eye-gouging scene. The ensemble sections were excellent.

Drama: the story is about the clash of ideas between fathers and their offspring
Drama: the story is about the clash of ideas between fathers and their offspring

Although some exits and entrances were made through the audience there was little attempt to connect with the audience other than to engage them with the story of parental conflict with their children. Perhaps some of the soliloquies could have been made more directly within the seating areas or to the circles such as when Edmond at the start of Act 1 Scene 2 says, “Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund… …now, gods, stand up for bastards!”

The trio of sisters were played with contrasting viciousness and faithfulness as befitted their characters. I wouldn’t like to meet Michelle Fox’s Regan on a dark night since her performance blended high octane hautiness and high volume evil with one part glamour in her velvet crimson gown and swept back hair and one part Cruella de Vil. Her sister Goneril played by Jessica Temple should also be on the Jacobean male protection list as she relished her vicious verbal attacks and casual commands: “Pluck out his eyes.” Both actors should not be allowed to play the Ugly Sisters in Cinderalla for fear of traumatising family audiences of the future.

Staging: the set was minimalist but effective and symbolic
Staging: the set was minimalist but effective and symbolic. Pic Simon Annand

Poppy Pedder, dear sweet Poppy Pedder as Cordelia was simply perfect as the wronged and goodly daughter who pays a heavy price for her honesty. In fact she is possibly one step on the road to being a national treasure and should be hot shoed into playing Florence Nightingale or Elizabeth Fry immediately despite her back door plans to allow a French army to land in Brexit Britain. There’s more to her than meets the eye – and Pedder is clearly someone who can hold their own in such hallowed company on stage. And she’s light as even King Lear managed to carry her at one stage.

Emotions: Poor Tom and King Lear converse
Emotions: Poor Tom and King Lear converse

Danann McAleer gave an enjoyable, physical and lively performance as Lear’s stalwart supporter Kent relishing his stint in the stocks and duffing in Gonerill’s steward Oswald played with an entertaining campness by Joey Akubeze, who was almost alone in managing the odd laugh in the harrowing tale of family feuds and national bloodletting. Akubeze: that’s not bad.

Thrown: the three sisters who fall out over the future of Lear’s Britain

Cornwall (James Sidwell) is a nasty piece of work and should never be allowed to handle dangerous torture implements. As Goneril’s trusty he pops out Gloucester’s eyes leading the audience to squirm on their seats and also to wonder how they did it with all that blood squirting over Hargreave’s shirt. A five star baddie if ever there was one in contrast to Goneril’s husband Albany (Brad Morrison) who convinced as the spouse with a conscious but terrible judgement in choosing women.

Light weight: King Lear carries Cordelia during the climax of the play
Light weight: King Lear carries Cordelia during the climax of the play. Pic: Simon Annand

The brother against brother conflict played out between good brother Edgar (Tom Byrne) and bad brother Edmund (Alex York) is one of the play’s brilliant hormonal sub plots. Byrne’s performance as Edgar (and his disguise as Poor Tom) was first class displaying a commitment to getting very muddy and writhing half naked on the heath’s floor in a neo Christ-like pose. And talking of the Bible, Edmund’s Cain style jealousy was equally engaging as an almost likeable bad ‘un – displaying a boyish enjoyment in his role as the twisted illegitimate sibling.

Good one: Cordelia is the only sister who is honest and pays a price for it
Good one: Cordelia is the only sister who is honest and pays a price for it

Jenny Haynes as the doctor was under used and it would have been good to get her take as the fool for which she was the understudy. Maanuv Thiara as Burgundy was suitably shallow as he ditches Cordelia as soon as she is cut out of the family fortune, while Daniel Bogod, Dylan Wood and Will Kelly all helped to complete a cast which more than matched their famous colleagues and suggested much is to come from the acting school’s class of sixteen.

It’s not an easy play to follow if you’ve not read the story due to the complex narrative and numerous characters but as a spectacle it works for the uninitiated with some memorable scenes. The opening carving up of the map of Britain, the fights, madness on the heath and the torture scene all gripped – although I’d like to have seen leaves and twigs blown across the stage in the storm sequence. Those ancient storm machines they used were quirky and fun – but you can’t beat modern high tech special effects. Yes the play was noisy and entertaining but like the storm – didn’t quite blow the nearly sell-out audience away.

Harry Mottram

Four stars

The play continues to July 10.

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