Written by Rebecca Harrison
One of the joys of a University fresh out of lock down is what seems to be a rejuvenated enthusiasm for theatre and performance. A fantastic example of this newfound vigour is the School of English’s theatre company Playhouse Lab doing their first ever full run (albeit not full length) performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays. The theatre company is made up of Shakespearean and Early Modern Drama academics (and the odd student or outside enthusiast). These scholars may spend their days elbow-deep in centuries-old folios and quartos, but their ambitious performance of King Lear on Wednesday evening was anything but dusty. Performed text-in-hand, this abridged version of the tragic tale of infirmity and filial love was ad hoc yet considered (and particularly well-enunciated).
We enter Studio 1 in the Workshop Theatre building to see the cast sat Brechtian-style in two rows, flanking the stage on both sides. Amongst the thespian-chic catalogue of black tops and black trousers are pepperings of costume: swords, a crown, a koala hat, and a dress which I believe Emily Raven-Baker, who played Regan, made herself. (A fact I was told at a campfire after the show).
Before the play begins, Playhouse Lab leaders Jane Rickard and José A. Pérez Díez come up and warn us that there have only been three rehearsals prior to the performance. It has to be said, this was a worrying admission, especially when performances of Lear can teeter on the four hour mark. But sufficiently braced, it becomes clear as the performance begins that we’re in safe hands.
Jane Rickard’s edit of the original text felt like less of a reduction and more of a distillation. We are guided through all plot points and given the most famous speeches, bardian turns of phrases and flourishes of verse which we would expect. The only really notable omission was the gory scene where Regan gouges Gloucester’s eyes out. But considering the informality of the performance, it seemed like the appropriate choice. (Not to mention, I think we were all thankful we were spared the violence, this being the week after dissertations had been handed in.)
The performances were very strong, which was particularly impressive considering it was played text-in-hand. David Fairer opens as King Lear and makes clear the more opaque moments of verse with the force of his emotion. He storms agedly at Cordelia, then at Goneril and Regan in their turn, and comes to feel the full force of ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!’ He switches gears between Lear’s defensive diffidence and indignant outrage with convincing fluidity throughout, and the final scenes featuring Cordelia are appropriately desperate and completely tragic.
Edmund (Fen Greatley-Hirsch) saunters and slouches with villainous apathy one moment, then relishes the bitter taste and plosive poignancy of his ‘bastardy’ the next. The good and “legitimate” brother Edgar (Richard Meek) was just so, but with the added eccentricism of the madman and west country farmer meta-roles he takes on. Martin Butler was great as the earnest and gobsmacked Gloucester. In the first half, he seemed to be the only one expressing any kind of shock at the incredible levels of tragedy being catalysed; and in the second, had the added difficulty of reading his script with a blindfold on. His fall “off the cliff” was also well staged. (And I’m really not just saying all this because he will be marking my diss).
The fool (Brett Greatley-Hirsch) brought much needed relief with his grumbling nonsense; Kent (José A. Pérez Díez) balanced Lear’s loosening grip on reality with a steadfast dutifulness; and Goneril (Aisha Habib Ahmad) moved stylishly into villainy with various ad-libbed quips, the regal yellow popping triumphantly out from her lehenga.
The tragedy was directed collaboratively, as was the custom during Shakespeare’s time, but a hats off has to go to Jane Rickard who was responsible for the execution of a coherent vision of the play (and for managing to memorise her lines).
Overall, the Playhouse Lab pitched their King Lear at just the right level of geeky indulgence and well-executed drama: it was a joy to watch. Particularly because, with the state of Universities today and their pretty austere working conditions for staff, it was great to see these academics having so much fun.
To join in the renaissance antics, or attend the next workshop or performance, email J.A.PerezDiez@leeds.ac.uk or J.Rickard@leeds.ac.uk to sign up to the mailing list.
More photos from the night:
Image 1: Edmund about to wound himself in order to frame Edgar. Image 2: Brett Greatley-Hirsch and Koala as the fool.
Image 3: Goneril and Regan unite against their father’s riotous behaviour.