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King Lear review at Bristol Old Vic – ‘imaginative’

Timothy West in King Lear at the Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Simon Annand Timothy West in King Lear at the Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Simon Annand
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Links between theatre schools and premier companies are at the heart of the Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary celebrations, courtesy of this imaginative, modern-dress version of King Lear, unusually decorated with music and masked dancing.

Octogenarian Timothy West, whose first Lear was 45 years ago at the Edinburgh festival, is joined by two highly experienced actors in Stephanie Cole and David Hargreaves, playing alongside 16 students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. It is a device that allows BOV director Tom Morris to view the narrative as a clash of two generations with little or no sympathy for each other, in the midst of a Britain as divided then as now.

West’s desolate, heart-rending Lear is in partnership with his Fool (a wise and compassionate interpretation by Cole of a role often played by a woman in Macready’s time) and his loyal friend Gloucester (Hargreaves) as the much sinned-against elders. Meanwhile, virtually everyone else – from Danann McAleer’s upright Kent to Alex York’s cunningly malevolent Edmund – meld the good and the evil, but tellingly project a universal failure to understand the poignant fear that haunts the old.

The concept is underlined by riveting combat scenes, alongside a dramatic new slant from choral chanting and menacing dance routines. Not Lear as traditionalists know it, although, as always, hearts are broken right at the end by West’s demented howl as he carries Cordelia’s lifeless body on stage.

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Students and experienced actors combine to bring fresh impetus to Shakespeare’s great tragedy