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King Lear starring Michael Pennington review at Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Michael Pennington in King Lear at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Marc Brenner Michael Pennington in King Lear at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Marc Brenner

Cordelia enters alone brandishing a rifle and aims several shots over the heads of the audience. Seconds later the entire cast sing Domine salvum, presumably appealing to God to save the king. It’s an unexpected beginning. Before the familiar opening lines, we have Cordelia making the point that she can do more than agree to the expected marriage – perhaps that she is almost the boy her father might have wanted – and an indication that this is a Christian kingdom with a stable monarchy. The setting is early 20th century, but relatively vague.

King Lear can be about many things: Christian redemption, Beckettian despair, the abuse of authority, intergenerational wrangling, the ravages of dementia. This production seems unsure where to place the emphasis and the result is something of a hodgepodge. True, director Max Webster took over from Philip Franks (who withdrew for health reasons) when cast and production team were already in place. And the restrictions of touring may have had an effect: the cast numbers only 14, but some of the necessary doubling could have been better handled in the cause of clarity.

Michael Pennington has many of the qualities of a memorable and moving Lear. His sonorous voice, thorough understanding of the text and sensitive verse speaking ensure that scenes when madness gives him humanity – cradling the broken Gloucester, grief-stricken over Cordelia  – are touching, while “Blow winds” is powerfully delivered in a splendid storm. When dividing the kingdom he is hale and playful, a spoilt child who wants to have fun without responsibility rather than a tyrant. The older daughters comply a little wearily with his demands while Cordelia (played by Beth Cooke) decides to be as obstinate as her father. But here a very unexpected character is introduced: Regan’s baby.

The reason for this bundle of cloth – it never for a moment resembles a real infant – is obscure. Perhaps it is just meant to underline the horror of Lear’s later curse of Goneril (strongly played by Catherine Bailey), whom, when crossed, he wishes barren, having earlier patted her tummy encouragingly. Sally Scott’s Regan puts aside her child to go with a will – and some sexual gratification – to the assistance of her husband in the blinding of Gloucester, which is graphically accomplished. She doesn’t seem maternal, so why is she forever cradling the infant?

Joshua Elliott’s Fool comes dangerously close to panto dame with his rouged cheeks and baggy overalls, but there is some sweetness in his relationship with Lear. Scott Karim’s saturnine Edmund is insolent rather than evil. Gavin Fowler’s Edgar makes a heartfelt Poor Tom and Tom McGovern a loyal and thoroughly disguised Kent, but performances are disappointingly uneven elsewhere.

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Michael Pennington is moving and memorable in an otherwise patchy production