Image courtesy of Pleasance Theatre.
Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company’s (EUSC) introduction to this play could not be a more appropriate expression of the mood of their production: “When stripped of its grandeur and tradition, King Lear is far from an inaccessible 400 year-old text, but rather a thorough investigation of what it means to grow old and what it means to be loved”. Unlike many purist versions of the tragedy, where directors are preoccupied with the authenticity of the production, of regal costumes and ornamental props, the EUSC’s King Lear had been refreshingly deconstructed.
Rather than be a distraction, the costumes were of neutral colours and the staging minimalistic, the hues of black, white and beige offering the audience a blank canvas and thereby allowing for a thorough analysis of each character’s psyche. The ingenuity of the staging was further reflected in the special effects, the haze of smoke symbolising a state of liminality in the play: thick in Act 1 to mark Lear’s delusion but diffusing in Act 2 as he gained insight. This, and the subtle ringing that sounded in particular moments of disorientation, perpetuated a sense of insularity that was conceivably necessary to create a truly psychological interpretation of the text.
The production’s unassuming approach however did not in any way hinder its ability to captivate its audience. The director made bold choice after bold choice: from the onstage blinding of Gloucester (Ben Schofield), which is traditionally performed offstage due to its gruesomeness, to the fabricated murder of the Fool (Pedro Leandro). On the subject of bravery, Macleod Stephen’s scene of full frontal nudity definitely warrants a mention, and was successful in capturing Edgar’s desperation behind the disguise of the debased Poor Tom.
The EUSC also brought new life to the canonical text through depth of characterisation. Perhaps the only criticism one could find would be the slightly inconsistent depiction of some of the principle characters. The brazen and somewhat contemptuous Cordelia of the first act did not quite fit with her helpless and hysterical outpouring at the end, meaning she was not the figure of salvation that is so successful in many other productions. However, Marina Windsor still managed to play all of these sides to her personality well, and perhaps this ambiguous characterisation is what the EUSC intended. It is a good thing there are no stock characters to be found; the charming and charismatic Edmund (Oliver Guidy) for example, is far more than just the heartless Machiavel. Likewise, Goneril (Caroline Elms) and Reagan (Aggi Kenig) admirably avoided the trap of being lumped together in the ‘wicked sisters’ archetype, through their very different, but equally transgressive, demeanours, Goneril’s steely resourcefulness an interesting contrast to Regan’s fiery passion.
In this way, a more genuine exploration of the human condition was achieved, one that took into account the complexities of human nature. This was pertinently exemplified by Will Fairhead’s outstanding performance as Lear. Fairhead elicited all the appropriate reactions from the audience, and more: anger at his foolishness, despair at his loss and ‘nothingness’ when he is gone.
The most emphatic moment of the play however came towards the end, as Lear, the picture of remorse, sat humbly in a white chair completely unable to look Cordelia in the eye. This was just one of many intimate moments in the play that struck a chord with the audience, solidifying the EUSC’s success in reinventing and giving universal relevance to a play so old.