King Lear @ Nottingham New Theatre

It would be wrong to dismiss tonight’s cast as a ‘great stage of fools’, as I think nerves were partially to blame for the many blundered lines in tonight’s opening performance of King Lear. It would equally be wrong for me to not address the fluffed lines in my review. Shakespeare’s text, particularly Lear, is admittedly challenging to perform, and tonight several actors were often left a little tongue-tied and unfortunately lacked clarity in their delivery; although I imagine this will improve over the course of the remaining performances. This was a minor drawback however, as, overall, the production was an effective adaptation, making the best of a limiting stage space. With standout performances from Nick Gill as Lear, and Shannon Smith as the seductive, Machiavellian villain, Edmund, Gus Herbert’s production of King Lear was a respectable adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most difficult texts to ‘get right’.

A play of such high drama and emotion requires a strong lead, and Nick Gill was a truly unsettling and prevailing Lear. Gill’s performance seamlessly contoured Lear’s own decline into madness, and, like most actors who have had the honour of gracing the stage as one of literature’s greatest tragic heroes, was able to fully display his ability in the seminal scene of Lear on the heath. Lear’s utter despair at his maddening state was made convincing and poignant by Gill, whose bursts of anger were irrigated with heartfelt wails. The light and sound during this scene was wonderfully crafted to compliment and interact with Gill’s powerful performance, making it a truly emphatic spectacle.

 Nick Gill was a truly unsettling and prevailing Lear

With an extremely minimalist use of props and setting, the stage remained sparse throughout the performance, but this certainly worked well to achieve the quasi-Beckettian landscape, that is, the heath. Similarly, the stage was successful in its rejection of a realist set-design in favour of ultimate emphasis on the power of the words themselves. With little to distract the eyes of the audience, the actors needed to deliver their lines and command the stage as their platform, which they achieved in varying degrees of success throughout the performance. But it was in Lear’s final scene, often regarded as the pinnacle of Shakespearean tragedy, where he enters ‘with Queen Cordelia in his arms’, that the stage was most harrowing. The audience heard Lear’s cries before he entered the stage with his daughter’s body, which left the characters on stage motionless and waiting with the audience; in this moment, Gill made Lear’s final moments truly tragic and emotive as he grieved the futile death of his one honest daughter.

 Gill made Lear’s final moments truly tragic and emotive as he grieved the futile death of his one honest daughter.

I anticipate that tonight’s shakiness will improve over the cast’s next performances, as it did during this performance; the second half of the production saw less errors in delivery, and indeed several less audience members, although this may well be attributed to the heavy and lengthy first half. This production, as with the text itself, is not one to be taken lightly by audiences. Be under no illusion that it makes for easy viewing, as the play continuously invites audiences to re-evaluate profound notions of fate, evil, and forgiveness.

 I anticipate that tonight’s shakiness will improve over the cast’s next performances

Herbert’s production certainly explored the tension between villainy and tragedy in its juxtaposition of the Lear of part one abhorrently cursing Goneril and whipping her pregnant belly, with the disturbed and exhausted Lear of part two. The horrors of villainy were envisioned as a spectacle of gore and tragedy, which Herbert translated on stage to create an expressive production, but one that, with minor faults in delivery, ultimately couldn’t quite live up to its potential.


Amelia Bauer

‘King Lear’ is on at 7:30pm at the Nottingham New Theatre from Tuesday 9th-Friday 12th December, with a 2:30pm performance on the Friday. To reserve tickets, click here.

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