King Lear – Royal Exchange Theatre

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It’s a big year for Shakespeare as the festivities to commemorate 400 years since his death are well and truly underway. Odd really that we are celebrating someone’s death, although in doing so we are really celebrating his life of course. Certainly there can be no other playwright that has endured in quite the way that he has. His writing continues to transcend barriers of race, culture, language and age. There is still an insatiable appetite for his work. No wonder really as it is masterly.

None more so than the mightiest of them all in King Lear. There is an abundance of them this year with Manchester being the first out of the starting blocks. Michael Pennington will be in Northampton and then touring with his, before we see Timothy West follow in Bristol, Anthony Sher in Stratford and then tantalisingly Glenda Jackson at the Old Vic.

Here though is Don Warrington’s turn in the dazzling space that is the Royal Exchange under the Talawa theatre company banner. Talawa has become the leading theatre company in the UK for Black actors. Diversity in theatre is the hot topic of the moment and frankly is getting quite boring yet I am pleased to see that White actors have been included in this company that could otherwise have been accused of being just as prejudiced as the many other areas of theatre are suggested to be.

To be honest I don’t give a jot what colour skin any of these performers have. It should be nothing more and nothing less then being about the performance they give and the interpretation of this remarkable work, and in Michael Buffong’s very earthy and ancient production there are some terrific performances.

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Warrington takes a thoughtful and leisurely approach to his Lear. He resists the trap of leaping into madness too soon and develops an approach to him that resonates more with the modern understanding of mental health then the usual immediate decay into dementia. His clipped and precise delivery as he calmly divides his kingdom and the control of his rage when banishing Cordelia is striking. It is only once the vicious claws of his two elder daughters are fully and savagely under his skin do we see him really being driven to madness. Is this emotional breakdown more than dementia caused by the horror and devastation that he can be treated thus by his offspring.

In Rakie Ayola’s Goneril and Debbie Korley’s Regan rarely have I seen such a terrifyingly unified and venomous pair of daughters. Immediately believable are they in the way that they mentally torture and savagely break the King. They truly chill each time they take the stage.

Alfred Enoch is an energetic Edgar with a great likability about him although at times is too frenetic as Poor Tom for somewhat inexplicable reasons. Fraser Ayre’s Edmund is solid and just about holds his own against both women to whom he has become promised. Philip Whitchurch is less convincing as Gloucester with a lack of warmth to his relationship with the King and Wil Johnson makes the odd decision to turn his Kent into a cheeky chappie with a cockney twang to his cheery banter that would rival Dick Van Dyke.

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The revelation in this production however is Miltos Yerolemou as the always very complicated and rarely ever successful Fool. There is a painful affection in Yerolemou’s portrayal who looks upon the unfolding tragedy displaying all of the pain in his face that his dear old Master cannot. As the King descends into madness Yerolemou cleverly uncloaks his Fool to counter it by way of his own ascent into sanity. The silly outfit is removed and the make-up disappears. The tenderest scene of the evening is not the normal awakening or the reunion of the King and Gloucester, but is actually the King and his Fool having just been cast from the house. As Warrington utters his “Let me not be mad” and his Fool holds him and looks on with desperation he is hoping for the same. It is a beautiful, simple and incredibly moving moment between two soul mates.

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