‘King Lear’ at The Tobacco Factory

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Photo by Graham Burke

To Bristol last Saturday to see Andrew Hilton’s latest offering for Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory: King Lear with John Shrapnel in the title role.

Hilton’s Shakespeare productions tell the story with great clarity, strong characterisation, and a crisp, authoritative, non-laboured delivery of the language. This makes a visit to a production at Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory ideal for first-time Shakespeare theatre goers and a secure pleasure for more seasoned ones.
There I met one I knew, one of the regulars on our short public courses at The Shakespeare Centre. We’d both of us seen King Lear many times (Saturday’s show marked my 12th) but we were eagerly anticipating another. Nor were we disappointed.

This was a feet-of-clay production, resolutely insisting that nothing on stage should signify anything beyond what it primarily portrayed. There was a marked absence of religious or spiritual gestures and practices which King Lear in performance makes easily available. The sense of our being invited to engage with a predominantly materialistic culture was borne out through the lavish and carefully thought through costume designs (witness John Sandemann’s dandyish-looking Duke of Burgundy competing for Cordelia’s love against Paul Currier’s more demurely costumed King of France). In the second half, the costume design developed further to illustrate a narrative of regime change. Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Albany, France, Edgar, and Edmund represented a more up to date world in which social hierarchies are far less apparent; whilst Lear, Kent and Gloucester were visually stuck in an ever-diminishing past. One senses that this newly arriving order could not easily have accommodated Christopher Bianchi’s commandingly loyal Fool.

The three daughters were finely delineated with subtle emphases and changes of tone. Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s controlling Regan and her bullish husband Cornwall (Bryon Mondahl ) were contrasted by Julia Hills’s effortlessly seductive Goneril and Alan Coveney’s scholarly Albany. Eleanor Yates’s Cordelia eschewed an easy victimhood and was instead someone who knew her rights and was willing to fight for them. The extraordinary opening scene felt like Cordelia’s real-life nightmare. Throughout it Jack Witam’s Edmund was recording everything, an illegitimate, left-handed scribe hearing the world change and crash around him, only to step into the chaos and take control of it himself at the beginning of act one scene two. He was a charmer whom it was all too easy to believe.

This production allowed the language properly to shine, even in apparently incidental moments: Kent’s (Simon Armstrong) inventory of abuse which he hurls at Oswald and Gloucester’s (Trevor Cooper) ineptitude as a father making itself keenly felt on the several occasions he succeeds in thoroughly insulting both his sons. Christopher Staines played a winning Edgar – alive to the energy and demands of the script – whom I was able to care for throughout.

In all this, John Shrapnel’s Lear achieved many fine crescendos and climaxes that bubbled up from his inner frustration and anger. His was a performance of fine contrasts and balances, recognisably the same man who curses Goneril and yet is able to learn ‘none does offend, I say, none’, during his painfully tender scene with the blinded Gloucester in act 4. His starkly rational, ‘she’s dead and rotten’ over the dead body of his youngest daughter poignantly harked back to the easy authority with which he had divided his kingdom.

Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory has been going for 12 years. It’s run a shoe-string and relies on private sponsorship rather than any kind of state subsidy. And somehow it manages to do a King Lear which is bursting with talent and in which everyone comes across as an individual, fully-realised, nuanced, and yet carrying a world of care – and opportunity – around with them. Bravo!

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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