We Are Animate presents a smart and snappy Shakespeare – all the power and plotting of the Bard’s historical tragedy in under 90 minutes. The eight strong gender-blind ensemble excels throughout in words and movement. The poetry is clearly spoken with just one Lord misjudging the ability of the intimate space to carry her overly sotto voce delivery. Director Lewis Brown moves his cast well using some dramatic dumb-show elements and funky dance moves between the scenes. A soundtrack (Jordan Wilkes) of disco beats and ambient noise (plus a short snatch of Zadok the Priest) blends well to create mood. The production is beautifully lit too (Jack Channer); an ominous blood-red wash across the space as the audience files in suggests the course of the evening is predetermined.
There is no escaping the importance of the symbol of the hollow crown for it is painted brightly on the movable set blocks and upon the backdrop. A stylish crown – regal and powerful – whilst, at the same time, jaunty and cartoonish.
Which might also go towards describing the King himself. Michael Rivers is a dazzling Richard II dressed to kill in a white suit, crown upon his head. When dressed for war he dons a Superhero breast plate; it’s all for show. He points, gesticulates, swans and shimmies his way around the stage, pouts when displeased. Around him are the Court In-Crowd: the fawning Bushy (Daniel Takefusa), out of sorts Queen Isabella (Nada Babikir), and father and son Duke of York (Lizzy Dive) and Aumerle (Harriet Barrow) both dressed in striking red. Hilary Burns stands out in the role of party pooper John of Gaunt – passionate in the sceptred isle speech – and then doubles as a reliable Bishop of Carlisle. [Note to Stage Manager – please provide Carlisle with a more convincing Bible]. But when Richard exploits the death of Gaunt by depriving Gaunt’s son of his inheritance, he lives (and dies) to regret it.
Enter Richard’s nemesis, Henry Bolingbroke. Fleur De Wit is superb in this role; her femininity a juxtaposition from the manliness we might expect. We see her brain ticking overtime as Henry manoeuvres into position to usurp the crown. By her side is the cold and calculating Lord Northumberland (Daniel Ghezzi) whose sinister delivery judges the atmosphere just right.
This is a cracker of a Shakespeare production. Each scene is lifted by the performances of Rivers and De Wit, ably supported by a strong ensemble. There is ample theatricality within the direction but the emphasis on the poetry shines through. I would happily watch this Richard II again.
“the Ed Miliband of Shakespeare: reliable, dependable, with the right words in the correct order but lacking that sense of purpose or timeliness”
I understand why people want to put on Shakespeare. It’s deep, people want to watch it, and it’s royalty free. What more could you want? But Shakespeare isn’t impressive like surgery is, it’s impressive like running a marathon is. Now, everyone has seen a marathon and if you want to make a statement you either need to do it exceptionally well, or you need to dress up as a Rhino and deliver your message.
And if putting on a Shakespeare isn’t like running a marathon, then it’s really like trying to be prime minister or a member of parliament. I want to know ‘why you?’ What does the version of Lear say different from the last? What extra insight do you have into our contemporary world? What do you believe in? This production of King Lear was the Ed Miliband of Shakespeare: reliable, dependable, with the right words in the correct order but lacking that sense of purpose or timeliness.
James Eley’s production at the impressive Jack Studio Theatre isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. The cuts to the script are sensible; the performances are credible, and the production tells the story. But this is all cone and no ice cream. It leaves an audience member wanting more and with their attention free to focus on minor defects of pace and accent. You will be sure you saw King Lear but not sure why.
Themes were suggested and hinted but never committed to. In the beginning, the play seemed to be set in a series of pubs with Lear and his daughters as landlords, and club owners waging a turf war. But then the ‘fool’ was more Commedia dell’arte, the fighting Tarantino and the soundtrack part classical and part brit pop. Edmund became Ada with lesbian relations, but nothing came of it. All good ideas but the question ‘why’ just swirls and swirls.
Lear isn’t a simple production, and between disguises and actors playing many parts, it’s easy to get lost. Our players did a reasonable job of telling the story and keeping it clear, although occasionally we got lost with some scenes delivered like the actors quickly needed to get to the end. The experience of Christopher Poke (Glouster) and Alan Booty (Lear) did shine as they slowed down and gave some timing to the scenes.
Ultimately this is not a bad show. Lear is long and challenging and complex and just getting through it is often enough as the text does so much. If you like Shakespeare then this is worth a shake. But if you’ve read King Lear, you know the rough story, and you’re looking for more then you might be disappointed. In the end, just like a politician, I would prefer a flawed play with something to say, rather than a polished production saying everything all at once.