King Lear – Cockpit Theatre

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This low key production starts with a simple statement to tell us that following a recent period of illness that has included a course of chemotherapy David Ryall will be using a script throughout the evening for reference due to a level of memory loss.

I can only imagine the frantic conversations that there must have been once finding out that the main man in this Lear was ill and I can only imagine the anguish that Ryall has suffered because of it. However I have to question whether the right decision was made to continue with the production, a production that I will say from the outset prompted me to leave at the interval for only the second time ever in all my years of theatregoing.

Ryall makes a valiant effort and demonstrates in his commendable attempt to continue in the face of adversity a great strength of will. There is a desperation for male actors of a certain age to reach the Everest like heights of Shakespeare’s greatest role. How do you judge the right time? You must have years aplenty behind you to make the aging King credible but you also need a youthful energy in order to pull off one of the biggest and most demanding roles to be fired from the Shakespeare cannon. Giving us his Lear across town at the National Theatre Simon Russell Beale is a mere snip at 52, he has the energy but lacks the gravitas of age.

Lear is four score years and upwards and has achieved great power and authority before being struck with his brutal and terrible senility. He talks of “crawling unburdened towards death”. This all adds up to age and at 80 Ryall certainly has that on his side. But as you watch this contemporary of Olivier’s original National Theatre it is uncomfortable to watch him struggle and fumble his way through. He looks frail and far too gentle of manner. Long pauses as he desperately searches for his lines on the pages of his script become awkward and unpleasant letting any emotion slip away from him at once. You simply cannot act whilst reading and he becomes nothing more than an old man reading words with the odd occasion where he remembers to shout a bit too.

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The fault doesn’t lie entirely at the door of Ryall however. Direction by Lewis Reynolds is simplistic and devoid of inspiration. His cast range from really quite good to eye wateringly bad. A hideously monotone and wooden performance from Dan MacLane as Kent is frankly a disaster and a whimpering portrayal of Gloucester by Stephen Christos is equally terrible.

There is vibrant work from Michael Luke Walsh and Dominic Kelly as Edmund and Edgar, both showing great flashes of personality amongst an otherwise very drab ensemble. Wendy Morgan makes a functional Goneril whilst Nikki Leigh Scott gives a splendidly sneering Regan.

Perhaps the final scenes would have saved the evening had I stayed to witness them, particularly with the added poignancy of Cordelia being played by Ryall’s real life daughter Charlie but alas this was not to be. Whilst all wishes of a speedy recovery go to Mr Ryall, this is a production that should have seen someone call a halt on it long before charging an audience to witness it.

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