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King Lear review at West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds

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Last year, Derek Jacobi gave us the interiority of Lear in the small-scale Donmar. Now Tim Pigott-Smith tackles the Everest of acting on the wide expanses of the Playhouse stage.

It is a production of two halves. The first is dominated by a massive, steeply tilting room under an eclipsed moon – things are awry, the natural order upset. Lear walks a scarlet carpet wearing blood-red, as do his daughters. The world they inhabit is stylized, theatrical. Ruari Murchison’s set is arresting, but it dwarfs the action. Ian Brown’s production, with Pigott-Smith’s authoritative Lear at its centre, makes clear that, king or beggar, human beings are no more than helpless feathers in the wind.

Richard O’Callaghan’s Fool wears a bleak expression and when Lear adopts his woolly hat, who is to say which is the more unbalanced? At “Blow winds…” Pigott-Smith climbs to the top of the set, a fly caught in Chris Davey’s dramatic lighting. In the wings, the metal of the thunder machine glitters.

It is all impressive, full of memorable shapes and sounds, the repeated word “nothing” given due weight, but it is an exploration of ideas rather than flesh and blood.

Then, after the interval, the tragedy acquires a breathtaking human dimension. The stage is bare now, a raked semi-circle beneath an enormous milky moon. Gloucester’s blinding is horrific, giving Regan and Cornwall (Hedydd Dylan and Chris Garner) a sexual buzz. Blinded Gloucester (Bernard Lloyd) and Pigott-Smith’s bereft king cling to each other like helpless babes. James Garnon’s swaggering Edmund addresses the audience with insolent directness and this time is allowed no redemption. Lear’s mourning for Cordelia is heartbreaking – Pigott-Smith is every inch a king and, more significantly, a suffering human being too.

Production Information

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, September 23-October 22

William Shakespeare
Ian Brown
West Yorkshire Playhouse
Cast includes
Tim Pigott-Smith, Neve McIntosh, Hedydd Dylan, Olivia Morgan, Bernard Lloyd, James Garnon, Tim Frances, Sam Crane and Richard O’Callaghan
Running time
3hrs 10mins

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