Review: Theatre Group’s Lear


As a fanatical fan of Shakespeare, when I heard Theatre Group was doing an adaptation of King Lear for their Nuffield show, I was somewhat intrigued. Edward Bond’s Lear is a loose adaptation to say the least and claims to strip back the aesthetic of Shakespeare in order to make explicit socio-political comments.

I feel this is a play designed more to be appreciated than directly enjoyed. Firstly let me point out that there was no performance from any of the actors that I could fault. Star turns came from Nina Westby, whose calmly psychotic Fontanelle was truly disturbing; Hannah Cutting, demonstrating her incredible versatility as an actress with the character of Cordelia; and James Forster, whose performance was often devastatingly moving.

I must also congratulate Nick Barclay for his incredible performance in the title role of Lear. As the show progressed, Lear’s transition from madman into a tired and beaten down old gentleman only grew more and more convincing.

However, exemplary performances did not detract from the faults of the show. The use of the band was sporadic and therefore seemed out of place and at some points drowned out the cast almost entirely. The use of lighting was predominantly excellent aside from the eye removal sequence. The combination of flashing and blinding lights gave me a headache. I’m all for shared experience between the characters and the audience, however not to the point of physical pain.

The fact that I walked out of the Nuffield feeling more depressed than I’ve felt in a long time should also be raised. Had it not been for the sterling comic performances from the likes of Peter Ward and Amy Fitzgibbon, the show would simply have been too grotesque and too depressing for public consumption.

Theatre is an entertainment medium as much as an artistic one. Messages should shine through naturally from character interaction rather than being shoved brutally into the foreground, hence my previous assertion that this was a show to be appreciated rather than enjoyed. Aside from a few comical or moving moments, everything seemed designed to make a point rather than entertain.

The cast made a fantastic performance out of the show they were given, however I’m not sure this was a show that used the Nuffield to its full potential.


Discussion16 Comments

  1. avatar

    I find this review problematic. I wonder if this is something to do with the fact that it was released so long after the play’s run, leading to certain observations which may have been blurred by time, such as Nina Westby’s performance, which (and this is no comment on the quality) could never be called ‘calm’.

    Firstly, let me say that I’m sorry that the lighting upset you at points, that’s a real shame. It was meant to be aesthetically pleasing, and at no points do anything other than that, so you’re right. Or perhaps you should be prepared for things like that, strobes being a pretty standard thing and these being no more powerful than a standard strobe.

    However, the major problems lie in an ignorance and a misuse of language. Assertions are made as to the correct answer to a discourse that is as old as theatre itself, and there is no attempt at qualification.

    We have a butchery of language here. What exactly is enjoyment? Here you seem to assume that appreciation denies enjoyment. You seem to assume that a piece of didactic theatre, and the conveying of a message, denies enjoyment. Surely this is not the case. Surely what you mean to say is that you did not enjoy it, but you appreciated it? Surely what you mean to say is that whilst you could recognise the good aspects, it wasn’t your bag?

    So, what you have here, is an assertion of opinion. Not a balanced review. But then, when I think you’re about done, you make an inexplicable jump into the realms of dramatic theory.

    ‘Theatre is an entertainment medium as much as an artistic one. Messages should shine through naturally from character interaction rather than being shoved brutally into the foreground, hence my previous assertion that this was a show to be appreciated rather than enjoyed.’

    I literally don’t know where to start with this. Might as well start with the first sentence.

    ‘Theatre is an entertainment medium as much as an artistic one.’

    Firstly, we struggle with the vague use of ‘artistic.’ Our only choice, as a reader, is to assume that ‘artistic’ here means ‘literary with an emphasis on the conveyance of message – connotations of the Epic Theatre and Brecht’s gestus are implied.’ This suggests that ‘artistic’ theatre is automatically not enjoyable, but should seek to be entertaining as well as maintaining integrity. You forget that some people find these things enjoyable. ‘Enjoyable’ here seems to mean ‘with a few gags, a dance number and a boy-meets-girl plotline’. Was Schindler’s List enjoyable? I enjoyed it. Appreciation is a form of enjoyment, and enjoyment can stem from appreciation.

    ‘Messages should shine through naturally from character interaction rather than being shoved brutally into the foreground.’ [I’ve cut this sentence short because I feel I’ve already dealt with the latter half of it]

    Okay. ‘Shine through naturally’. Here we seem to subscribe to realist political theatre. However, the problem with this is that one cannot be sure that an audience will take heed of these messages when they are expected to ‘shine through’ the realist acting. An audience which does not see appreciation as enjoyment, does not see didactic literary theatre as something to be enjoyed, will not listen to the messages. They will only listen to the pretty story.

    Your attempt at dramatic theory, therefore, is somewhat holey. Holey in the sense that it tears itself apart in a violent paradox.

    The idea that this show is not right for the Nuffield, or does not use the Nuffield to its full potential, is the final part to be dealt with. Maybe Theatre Group should have chosen something else, another piece of realist “enjoyable” theatre, much like almost every other play they put on. Maybe everyone would have left having had a nice time, a bit of fun, but Theatre Group would have failed to try something different. The audience has to be considered, certainly. But the choice of play must not be constrained by a lack of artistic appreciation on the part of the audience. They must not only choose plays that the audience are going to “enjoy.”

    • avatar
      Ashleigh Moore

      Firstly I will address the point concerning Nina Westby, as it is the only point in my review which may require apology. In hindsight, I may have gotten the two sisters in the show confused.

      However, your assertion that my piece is all opinion and this does not make it a balanced review is something I have issues with. When someone is asked to review a piece, they are essentially being asked for their opinion of the performance put in front of them. This is what I gave and, funnily enough, was not contested when my opinion of The Seagull was absolutely glowing. I find it amusing that at this point, I was not ignorant.

      Secondly, I feel I should point out that this is a review for an online publication in which I don’t have the time or space to delve into my opinions on dramatic and literary theory. However, if you adamantly feel this is something that requires further discussion, feel free to contact me personally. I welcome the debate.

      Also, I find your stance on theatre being enjoyable incredibly pretentious. You seem to be of the opinion that theatre cannot maintain its integrity and still be fun. If this was the case, theatre attendance would be significantly less than it currently is.

      The thing about your response to my review that I find the most ‘problematic’ is your stance on the way in which messages should be conveyed. I find it incredibly worrying that you seem to think audiences do not have the intellectual capacity to grasp messages that are woven into the narrative rather than being thrust brutally into the foreground as I mentioned. Audiences deserve far more credit than being capable of nothing more than listening to the ‘pretty story’.

      Finally, I have no objection to Theatre Group attempting something different. However, one cannot always expect something different to be well received. This brings us nicely back to the fact that a review is a written piece based entirely on opinion. And inevitably, an audiences opinion is going to be swayed the most by the extent to which they enjoyed the show put before them. As for use of the Nuffield, it is often a one time opportunity for students. It could therefore be argued that it is not the best time for an experiment. However, that is down to the cast to decide. I just don’t think that particular show made the best use of a space that is rarely accessible.

      I apologise my review didn’t please you. However, if in future you are looking for a piece to gush over how wonderful a show was and not an honest opinion, read an advertisement, not my reviews.

      • avatar

        I should emphasise that I no longer care whether you liked what we did with it. It’s your ideas about theatre itself that I find interesting.

        I think it was your lack of mentioning of certain things which bothered me. I’m just saying that not mentiong Epic Theatre in the context of the review seems like a pretty glaring error, especially when it is the principles of this which you take umbrage with. If, however, you have not read any Brecht I suggest you do before you review another piece of epic theatre. The synopsis isn’t always enough. (Yes, I have read your Seagull review – I just thought that raising my eyebrows publicly at cerain points in this would be unprofessional and catty, such as they were).

        I wrote that appreciation is “a form” of enjoyment, not the only form, not a better form. Just one form. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with shows which are designed purely to entertain. In fact, I directed one earlier this year, and I bloody loved the Wedding Singer.

        You make the point that you don’t have time for the dramatic theory stuff – well don’t do it then. Don’t tell us “what theatre should do” in a couple of ham-fisted sentences when people like Sophocles, Aristotle, Stanislavsky, Brecht and indeed Bond have been trying to do that since theatre’s genesis, you’re opening yourself up to criticism.

        • avatar
          Ashleigh Moore

          Ok, I fail to see how raising your eyebrows here is not also unprofessional and catty.

          You’ve made it quite clear that you were actively involved in this particular production and to that extent I consider it more unprofessional that you would go out of your way to take a critique of your work so personally.

          However, there’s one point on which we agree. I also loved the

          • avatar

            I hope if the member replying to your comments Ashleigh is part of the play that they realise they are misrepresenting Theatre Group. As you have stated your previous reviews, and this current one also, have been appreciated greatly and I think a huge significance to them is that they are eloquent reviews by a student written about student work. This, to me, is so important in our Union for our relations between Media societies and PA. It is important to acknowledge a review’s subjective state and as a member of Theatre Group myself I know only too well how reviews differ because they are a matter of opinion.
            I think in the wide diversity of dramatic art all plays aren’t meant to be universally liked. Edward Bond, in particular, is a writer that is known for delving into the less appreciative aspects of play writing, such as violence. It was always a challenge, therefore, for Theatre Group to take this on and it was never made to be a showstopping spectacle of entertainment. I think the practical issues you have raised Ash with the show itself were acknowledged by the whole team already so there isn’t much debate there. As for the appreciation/entertainment debate, it’s an interesting point but when taken into a petty sphere it’s dangerous representatively. However, I liked the point and find it an interesting one to follow up with the whole exploration of dramatic art, but I hope it is done with the acknowledgment that your opinion matters because TG asked for it.

            I only hope you review more shows for the Performing Arts as they are well-written, analytical, and balanced.

  2. avatar

    The Echo review seems to be consistent with Ashleigh’s review:

    “A FAR cry from Shakespeare’s King Lear, this early 1970s take on the Lear legend by Edward Bond makes for a harrowing evening, and, at over three hours, a challenge to the concentration as well as the strength of the stomach…”

    Reading the Wessex Scene review and then reading the defensive comments just made me think that whatever someone involved in a production (assuming that is so) thinks of a reviewer / critic, they need to learn to take the rough with the smooth, and accept that reviews are opinions, and not react in a hostile way, as it just gives a poor review more prominence, and invites further criticism in response.

    It seems odd that to me anyone involved in putting on such a controversial play would be chippy if the play provokes a reaction. Bond’s Lear is not meant to be a comfortable play, just as Shakespeare’s original is in many ways not a comortable play.

    Actually, Ashleigh’s comment that the play is perhaps one to be experienced rather than enjoyed is insightful and echoes comments that can easily be found elsewhere, for example in a study guide to Bond’s play:


    “Edward Bond’s Lear was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1971. Bond’s 1965 play Saved had already established his position as an important new playwright, and some believe early reviewers of Lear did not fully understand the play but were reluctant to condemn it, largely because of Bond’s reputation. Many did find fault with the play, however, and much attention was focused on Leafs tremendous violence. Some were critical of that violence, while others defended its extremity as essential to the playwright’s purpose. As with Bond’s other plays, the violence in Lear remains a subject of critical debate to this day.

    Another focus of attention on Lear is its relationship to William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. As the playwright has noted, it is important to note that Bond’s Lear be seen not simply as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play but as a comment on that drama. In various interviews, Bond has said that current audience reaction to Shakespeare’s King Lear, which focuses on the artistic experience of the play, is far removed from the way Shakespeare’s audience would have responded. Bond’s purpose is to make Shakespeare’s play more politically effective, more likely to cause people to question their society and themselves, rather than simply to have an uplifting aesthetic experience. As a socialist playwright, Bond writes plays that are not meant merely to entertain but to help to bring about change in society.

    Lear has been called the most violent drama ever staged as well as the most controversial of Bond’s plays. It has been revived a number of times since its original production, and its reputation has grown as more critical attention has been paid to Bond’s work Although it is clear that Lear is an important work among Bond’s plays, its full effect on contemporary drama remains to be seen.”

    In a review of the play at the Crucible in 2005, Lynne Walker of the Independent wrote:
    “Bond has said that he writes about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners, and in its graphic depiction of the cruelty of which humans are so coolly capable – blood spurting, guts spilling, eyes popping – Lear left me shaken, not stirred.”

    Wikipedia states that the play’s emphasis on violence and brutality led to mixed reviews among top critics. Although some critics praised its message against violence (and its cast), others questioned whether the play was convincing enough to garner the reaction it sought from the audience, It should be noted that the source for this quote is an article in the New York Times from 1973 by Walter Kerr entitled “The Audience Simply Rose and Fled.”

      • avatar

        in reply to Jonny B’s point:

        “but I hope it is done with the acknowledgment that your opinion matters because TG asked for it.”

        As a reader I found that amusing. I hope you didn’t intend to suggest that the opinions of those that you do not seek do not matter?

        • avatar

          No, Ed. What is meant is that at the time, TG ardently asked for a review from the Wessex Scene in order to uphold relations with them, therefore because we wanted their opinion so much it really mattered to us when it was published. Of course the opinions of those we do not seek matter, I’ve acted most of my life and love it when persons I have never met come and chat to me thoroughly about the show — bits they didn’t like, bits they perhaps did, bits they couldn’t understand and what they took from the show and from the writing, particularly when it is thoroughly analytical. The various people I’ve acted in with shows would concur.

          I honestly think you’re nit-picking though Ed and believe you’d know that if we had half a brain we’d take everyone’s opinions with consideration.

          • avatar

            And I wonder if it’s because you’ve never known the Theatre Group society apart from the petty comments of this article and the review of Sam Jenkins-Shaw that you ask obtuse questions?

          • avatar


            No I misread your comment the first time Jonny, and thought you were suggesting that Ashleigh’s opinion only had validity becuase you had asked for it.

            I only commented on this article at all because I was surprised at the other responses directed at Ashleigh’s review.

            I was pleased to see your comment sticking up for Ashleigh, Jonny, well done.

          • avatar

            Fair enough. Sorry about the obtuse comment, Ed, I really like your research into Lear and its relation with Ashleigh’s review and agree with how it ties into Ashleigh’s idea of appreciation of theatre.

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