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

Queen Lear at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander

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.

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

Production Information

Queen Lear
Tristan Bates Theatre
September 20, 2016
October 8, 2016
Press night
September 22, 2016
William Shakespeare
Phil Willmott
Jason Meininger
James Nicholson
Caroline Hagley (wardrobe supervisor)
Stage manager
Elspeth Watt
Production manager
Toby Burbidge
Cast includes
Elizabeth Appleby, Mark Garfield, Rosamund Hine, Nick Howden-Steenstra, Ben Kerfoot, Hannah Kerin, Ursula Mohan
KD Theatre Productions
Running time
2hrs 40mins