King Lear Fails to Make Its Mark

Gillian Davies reviews King Lear, from On The Rocks.

The On The Rocks student arts festival brought various student-run productions to St Andrews over the last week. One of the most note-worthy events was King Lear, which drew in audiences for two nights inspired by one of the Bard’s most famous scripts. Director Hannah Ritchie took on a mammoth task putting together the incredibly lengthy production in a short period of time, and in that sense, the show was noteworthy. However, the show itself largely missed the mark, suffering from inconsistencies in style and performance, following an uncomfortable middle ground between traditional Shakespeare and the modernised productions popular today.

Featuring an all-female cast, a new twist on the old tradition of all-male casts, the play brought to the stage a host of familiar and new faces and provided roles that are usually reserved for the male actors. Specifically chosen modern costumes were used as a means of differentiating between the male and female characters. With such a large cast, it was necessary for the sake of clarity in what is largely considered one of the most challenging Shakespearian productions for the stage.

The set took on a role of its own, bringing the action to the open floor and allowing audiences to feel the presence of the actors throughout the show. The only major props were a massive wire tree taking up the back of the set and a red leather throne sitting centre stage. The atmosphere was appropriate with harsh lighting and the intense soundtrack of Kanye’s Life of Pablo setting the mood from the beginning of the show to the tragic conclusion. The lighting posed major issues when, during the most intense, violent scene of Gloucester’s blinding, the audience bore witness to strobing that prevented any real viewing and served as an unwarranted distraction from the play itself. Likewise, while the music added a very contemporary, haunting quality to the production, some scenes were accompanied by quick cut-offs or singular song verses on a constant loop, which obstructed the intensity of Lear even further.

Annabel Steele took on the incredibly challenging role of Lear himself, and while she had a strong stage presence, the vast intricacies of the character, and the play more largely, require an incredible amount practice and experience to master. The lengthy monologues, the complex language, and the dialogue plagued with double meaning is difficult to portray properly, and when done without definite confidence, it fails to convince, and often confuses the audience. The comic relief, provided by Jimmy Tyssen Smith as The Fool, kept audiences laughing and gave a much needed break from treachery and deceit throughout the extensive plot.

However, the weight of the production was felt by the audience, and though the cast put in an incredible effort, the show would have benefitted from a more decisive overall direction. I enjoyed the thought that went into the casting, set, and music, and I hope there are more productions that make the bold choice to take a true creative license and set their shows apart in the future.

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