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Queen Lear review at the Tristan Bates Theatre – ‘pleasingly refreshing’

Queen Lear at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander Queen Lear at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander
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This autumn, Glenda Jackson will return to the stage as King Lear and the Donmar will be presenting its third all-female Shakespeare production with The Tempest. Instead of playing with notions of gender fluidity, Phil Willmott’s Queen Lear decisively makes the tragic monarch a woman (the production was simply called Lear in its previous run at the Union Theatre) and the un-showy confidence with which this concept is executed is pleasingly refreshing.

While its selfie-taking setting provides a rather unsubtle method of evoking modern times, Lear has a diagnosable medical condition (the Fool becomes a carer), rather than an indefinable state of madness or delusion. Ursula Mohan’s Lear is a woman in the early stages of dementia attempting to abdicate while she still has some dignity and control over herself.

Mohan astutely charts a well-respected leader’s deterioration from gracious grande dame to nightie-clad bag lady hitting her son-in-law with a slipper. There is something particularly devastating about a mother wishing infertility on her daughter and, in a different way, Cordelia mothering her mother.

Several of the supporting roles are under-directed but Rosamund Hine makes a neurotic Goneril and Ben Kerfoot a suitably slippery Edmund, making the most of his boyish charms.

Willmott’s minimalist staging employs an atmospheric use of torchlight as the characters grapple in literal and metaphorical darkness. With a grand piano at its centre, Cordelia is able to touchingly appeal to her mother’s memory by means of music, rather than flowery declarations of love.

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Domestic tragedy of Shakespeare’s bleak play heightened by gender-reversed casting