An horrifically dark and brutal homage to Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Lear by Edward Bond is one of the twentieth century’s most beguiling and unnerving works of drama. Not a re-write or a modernisation of the classic, but rather a show that uses the idea of a King and his daughters to form the basis for a politically driven family drama, Lear is a show designed not to entertain, but to provoke. For this reason, as well as some of the logistics (a cast of 25 student actors playing 74 roles, for example) you have, without a shadow of doubt, one of the most ambitious productions put on at the university. And what a job Theatre Group did.
Anyone who went into the show expecting a romp about a man who goes a bit mad but eventually sets everything right again with a big sing-song at the curtain call, should not have been allowed into the auditorium. Bond, in his preface to the play, tells us that he writes about violence ‘as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners’ and in producing Lear, Theatre Group automatically treats us, the audience, with a maturity that is missing from a lot of student shows. We should have all done our research before entering Bond’s world. The play, at almost all points and in all spheres, is designed to comment on what it means to be part of a revolution and what it means to have absolute power.
Blunt? Yes. But necessary. One got used to this kind of violence throughout the evening.
Bond’s maniacal despot turned messianic wise-man, Lear (played by the extremely likeable but also extremely talented Nick Barclay), is his focus for this commentary. The play revolves around Lear’s search for truth as his empire crumbles around him and he realises that it is pity that is needed in a leader, not violent power.
The acting was first-rate. Nina Westby and Emma Real-Davies played Lear’s daughters Fontanelle and Bodice with an horrific nonchalant brutality when together; and when apart, each sister had a life of their own. Bodice’s death on the final night was particularly brutal: she screamed her lungs out whilst someone stamped on her head.
Blunt? Yes. But necessary. One got used to this kind of violence throughout the evening. Soldier A (Sam Dobson) beating Lord Warrington (Tom Searle) to a bloody pulp near the start of the play set the tone which, of course, is hard to master on stage. However, for the most part, the technical side of the show in terms of the fights, gunshots and sound effects, was extremely well executed. It was great to see a show that used real gunshots from blanks rather than sound effects (bar a few mishaps). Fastidiousness is what made this show work. Fastidiousness in everything.
Alexis Forss and Alex Bray, as directors, brought out all the necessary stops in order to make this show what it was: a bloodthirsty catalyst of thought, as well as a sometimes funny and heart-wrenching show. The comedy came mostly, it has to be said, from Jonny Baynham and Alex Curtis in the roles of the slimy and out-right slimy Dukes of Cornwall and North, whose slimy suggestions of slimy relations with their wives reminded me of some slime I saw on the pavement once.
James Forster as the Gravedigger’s Boy, Ash Clowes as Susan, and Cam Bevan as the Carpenter all tugged at one’s heart-strings. And yet most of these characters were all off playing others, in different guises, within moments of finishing one scene. This was indicative, I thought, of an ensemble who were clearly focussed as well as prepared – or as prepared as they could have been. It was a shame they hadn’t had longer in the Nuffield as sometimes a few characters were lacking in volume. But I think this isn’t down to anything other than the daunting prospect of having almost no time at all to prepare to act on a stage to 450 people – something most of the cast had never done before.
For Theatre Group to achieve something like Lear is a marvel, and I don’t think their praises can be sung highly enough. The production even had an original score by Alexander Glyde-Bates which, although it sometimes made it harder to hear some of the actors, should be commended for the simple facts that it worked, it accompanied the tone and genre of the show, it was composed entirely for the show and it came together over the course of the 4 performances.
Lear marks the pinnacle of a year for Theatre Group where experimentation has paid full dividends: both in terms of bums on seats, and how those bums seats commend what they’ve seen. Theatre Group did full justice to The Seagull and You Can’t Take It With You at the end of 2011 – two classic plays; and they will, at the end of this year, have performed no less than four fully produced pieces of original student writing; not to mention their annual Showcase coming up in April (25-27th) which features nothing but original student writing.