An unexpected side effect of having occasional reasons to travel North is that I can sometimes make it to exhibitions or theatre productions that would otherwise pass me by. Recently, a weekend trip put me in Manchester for the day, and if I chose the weekend to be one on which I could catch King Lear, who would judge me?
I haven't seen King Lear since I was 17 or so, and the local amateur theatre team staged it. Of that production, I remember being heartbroken over Edmund's betrayal, and the absolute devastation of Lear's breakdown. I also remember the minor distractions of costumes that didn't quite work, the audience all around being visible in the well-lit space, and being slightly impressed that Lear could carry Cordelia. (Yes, I'm the person watching great work and simultaneously undermining it by mulling over the practicalities of exits and entrances, lighting and costume changes. Sorry.)
This time, the distractions were wonderful - the Royal Exchange is a brilliant venue that I've not spent enough time in, and the realisation that the wings encircle the audience in the theatre 'pod', who in turn encircle the stage was a moment that made my heart glad.
Also, they made it rain. Proper rain, so the theatre technicians spent the interval vacuuming the water out of the set. It was understated and fantastic, and the way that stage became cliff, and castle, and heath without any physical change to set was testament to the skill of the production, and the strength of the performances.
Don Warrington's Lear is bombastic, determined, and driven by something you can't quite see to make decisions that he thinks are for the best. Regan and Goneril are clearly different women, allies from the nursery with different driving forces who too easily become rivals for Edmund, while Cordelia transforms from youngest, favoured child to leader of an army.
Lear isn't a play I know well (I don't think I've ever read it all), so the alliances, betrayals and suspense carried their full weight. The strength of the production - of each individual member of the cast, who brought character to each role, and beyond that, belief in all the possibilities of that character. The Fool (Miltos Yerolemou) and Edgar/Poor Tom (Alfred Enoch) in particular brought a life and conviction to their scenes which made the wild spaces beyond society all the more appealing, and the political, social world unreasonable. I've not seen a more powerful presentation of the need to rebuild a society that has been poisoned by poor decision-making at the top.
Lear is a tragedy: everyone knows it ends badly. But hope is a powerful thing in an excellent production - and the tragedy was all the more harrowing for the very real sense that it could all have been prevented, and ended well. This production (by Talawa Theatre Company) continues at the Royal Exchange until the 7th May, and will then be moving to Birmingham Rep in a couple of weeks (19th-28th May). I heartily recommend it.