Its a brave man to tackle Lear but an even braver one to tackle it twice in as many years. Michael Pennington is one of those quietly modest but quite exceptional actors that plies away at his trade without any fuss or starriness whilst always offering a quality and a professionalism that is a lesson in acting in itself.
Pennington took on Shakespeare’s tale of woe and emotional breakdown in New York in 2014. His soon to be released book of his time there and his approach to the role will be a must-read for any fan of theatre, so it is now a real treat for him to revisit the role as well as for UK audiences to see what he can do (the production embarks on a UK tour after its run in Northampton).
The most remarkable thing about Pennington is the power that comes from his otherwise frail and delicate looking frame. He commands a level of presence and speaks with a delicious air of authority that exudes regal command whilst being able to drop to a heart breaking whisper as well. He clearly revels in the language and is at home searching his way through the verse.
Following the indisposition of director Philip Franks it is Max Webster who has gallantly stepped in and picked up the reigns on this production. It is unclear as to how much involvement each of them had and which bits belong to whom, it probably doesn’t matter. There is nothing really new or different about this production which is never going to set the world ablaze, but it is done with a clear narrative and a solid base.
Whilst Pennington is superb it is in those around him that the production falters. Pip Donaghy is a fine Gloucester as to is Tom McGovern as Kent with Gavin Fowler giving his well defined form to a nice portrayal of Edgar. But there are then some real misfires with Scott Karim’s ridiculously foppish Edmund and Joshua Elliott’s strangely unengaging Fool. Rather than conceited, manipulative, dashing and womanising Karim’s Edmund is more tortured poet, complete with floppy hair and bandy legs he even dresses in black velvet as opposed to military or manly refinery. Elliott’s Fool is difficult to pin down as well. What is his relationship with the King? He appears not to be very funny and there is no great sense of him being in the inner circle of knowledge, so why is he there? And why is he wearing a dress?
In the three daughters there is a lack of real feeling. Catherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan are more spoilt well-to-do Stepford Wives than scheming and vindictive murderers, unnatural hags they appear not. So where the venom has come from in them it is never fully explained. Beth Cooke’s Cordelia is equally unmoving despite not setting a foot wrong in her portrayal.
For all of this productions merits there is much that is also strangely unsatisfying. Perhaps the change in director midway has meant the production losing its way somewhat and never really getting under the skin of the piece. With his previous Lear experience Pennington is already got it sussed and pulls it off with ease, but the others appear to be lacking in real persuasion when it comes to their own characters. As they explore their roles as the tour sets off perhaps this will change.