King Lear @ Oxford Theatre Guild, Merton College, Oxford, 2015Tragedy

  • Peter Malin

King Lear, Oxford Theatre Guild, Merton College, Oxford, 11 July 2015.

Reviewed by Peter Malin


References to the play are to William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. by R. A. Foakes, Arden Shakespeare Third Series (Walton-on-Thames: Nelson, 1997).


Between the work of Michael Dobson and the RSC’s ongoing Open Stages project, amateur theatre has acquired a level of respectability that would have been hard to imagine even twenty years back.[1] The adjective “amateur” long ago shed its genuine etymological value, gathering instead the pejorative associations of its less respectable neighbour, “amateurish”. Now, though, the work of non-professional theatre-makers has become a cultural phenomenon worthy of both celebration and analysis. In an essay in Shakespeare Survey 58, Dobson offers a largely unsympathetic account of Gerard Gould’s 2004 Oxford Theatre Guild production of The Merchant of Venice.[2] Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2015, the Guild presented King Lear in the Fellows’ Garden of Merton College, directed by Alistair Nunn. I must confess to an interest here: I directed the Guild’s only previous production of Lear in the same garden in 1996, with Nunn’s leading actor, Joseph Kenneway, in the role of Edmund.[3]


There was a time when Oxford’s open-air Shakespeare productions were resolutely “traditional”, dressed in Elizabethan/Jacobean costume and avoiding anything as controversial as “interpretation”. This, directors were assured by conservatively-inclined committees, was what the tourists wanted, and it was what I offered, I fear, in my production of Lear. Nunn was much bolder. Supported by the imaginative set and costume designs of Jacqui Lewis and Isobel Pellow respectively, he shifted the play’s setting from picture-book prehistory to a post-nuclear dystopia constructed from the detritus of Oxford’s motor-industry heritage. Broken machinery and rusting car parts, chains and tyres and pallets and battered road signs, were reclaimed for use as everything from Lear’s throne to the stocks in which Kent is humiliated. On a raised stage wedged between a group of stately, mature plane trees whose rustling canopy spread over actors and audience alike, a set of double doors opened on to a cluttered, filthy playing-space backed by the brick and concrete walls of a disused fall-out shelter and a graffiti-covered block supporting a wire-caged balcony. Enclosing this disturbing play-world, ever-present but fading into the evening’s encroaching darkness, Merton’s elegant gardens and 13th-century architecture were ghostly reminders of a lost civilisation.


Pellow’s costumes animated Lewis’s setting with a post-punk, neo-Gothic aesthetic inspired by the fashions of the 1980s, when the nuclear apocalypse was supposed to have taken place. Among the costume items eclectically and imaginatively thrown together were army fatigues, greatcoats, leather jackets, Doc Martens, studded waistcoats, gauzy ball-gowns, acid-wash jeans and patterned shirts, all evocatively ragged and stained. Mohawk hairstyles or shaved heads for the men contrasted with the women’s complex braiding or elaborately wild coiffures. Black face-paint and body-art were aggressive and challenging, particularly so in the case of Lear’s daughters, but were offset by what Pellow called in the programme “a bit of Vogue-photoshoot glamour”.[4]


The play’s action was underscored by Dominic Hargreaves’s resonant sound score, suggestive of grinding industrial processes, lending an ominous sense of foreboding to Lear’s emotional disintegration. Oxford’s own soundscape of prowling helicopters and pounding rock music, competing with the play as darkness fell, for once complemented rather than distracted from the performance. Even an amplified rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “I can’t get no satisfaction”, from somewhere far across the city, could not draw the audience’s attention away from the raw emotional grip of the final scenes.


Though the set, costume and sound designs were all remarkably accomplished, credit for the production’s overall vision must go to the director. Perhaps Nunn’s bravest decision was to begin the play with a prologue presenting the imagined back-story of Lear’s preference for Cordelia over Goneril and Regan. In quick succession, we saw a young Lear greeting the births of his first two daughters with patriarchal disappointment before being thrilled by the arrival of twins, a boy and a girl. When the boy died, his twin sister Cordelia became invested with all Lear’s love and hope for his lost son. The dialogue for this sequence was woven from snippets of other plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, concluding with Lear’s consolatory decision to make Cordelia “the hopeful lady of my earth”. Though we may argue that Lear’s preference for Cordelia is a “given” that does not need explaining, the effect of this prologue was to focus our view of all three sisters’ behaviour within a very specific socio-familial context, enabling the actors to flesh out what Shakespeare leaves unexplored. In amending the play’s opening, Nunn was simply appropriating to amateur performance the authority to edit a canonical text that professional directors assume almost as a matter of right.


None of the creative input I have considered so far would have counted for much if the quality of the performances had occupied a notional space between “amateur” and “amateurish”, but this was far from the case. The strength-in-depth of the company, and their evident commitment to the production, revealed Lear to be an ensemble piece rather than the star vehicle it may appear. From Sam Holland’s Old Man to Carolyn Taylor’s Doctor, the actors in smaller roles performed with clarity and conviction. Carla Buckingham, as Oswald, relished her opportunities as a strutting Malvolio invested for a time with a little brief authority before overreaching her capabilities. Richard Readshaw’s Kent, though initially lumbered with a silly hairpiece, conveyed humane and stalwart loyalty. Josh Hall’s Fool, an energetic, punk Mad Hatter, spoke and sang with exceptional clarity, underscoring his foolery with a rich vein of emotional pain. His relationship with Lear veered between deep affection and a dangerous tension, with Lear’s threat, “An you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped” (1.4.172) poised ominously in the air before being punctured by the Fool’s humour rather than Lear’s violence. Though Nunn’s prologue was at pains to explain Lear’s particular love for Cordelia, no such “solution” was offered to one of the play’s real mysteries, the Fool’s disappearance from the text. Here, after his final line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (3.6.82), he simply walked out of the play.


As Gloucester, Edward Tomlin gave a thoughtful, well-spoken performance as a weak, gullible but good-hearted man tested beyond endurance. Physically and vocally, he resembled the late, veteran RSC actor Sebastian Shaw, a memorable Gloucester to Eric Porter’s Lear in the 1968 production directed by Trevor Nunn (no relation, as far as I know). The scene of his blinding, bound to a wheeled office-chair, was tactfully but powerfully staged, with Jeremy Newton’s incisive, thuggish Cornwall well in control of the line between horror and melodrama. Both the Dover Cliff scene and Gloucester’s duologue with the mad Lear were intensely moving, with none of the sense actors of Gloucester sometimes give that they feel they should be playing Lear. Tomlin knew his place, and was all the more impressive for his self-effacing, quiet strength.


Gloucester’s sons were strongly played but not evenly matched, with Simon Marie’s otherwise effective Edmund missing the vein of vigorous humour and rapport with the audience that is a key part of the character’s perverse attractiveness. Robert Cole fared better as Edgar; initially cheery, naïve and a bit plodding, his reconfiguration as Poor Tom energised his performance both physically and vocally. Clad only in frayed, black boxer-shorts and smeared with mud, Cole trod a careful path between the touching and the ludicrous. His hard-won emotional maturity fully deserved his status as speaker of the play’s closing lines. Like other actors before him, though, he seemed to equate the word “contemned” with “condemned” (see 4.1.1-2), an easy mistake for the unwary, but a matter of textual accuracy that should have been picked up. There was one other oddity, not Cole’s fault. When Edgar confronted Edmund at the end, his head was uncovered, so that his brother’s failure to recognise him was baffling.


The three sisters, far from Chekhovian, were played with notable strength and incisiveness. Cate Nunn as Goneril spoke with impeccable clarity and precision, her voice ringing with a fierce authority just on the verge of losing control. As Regan, Danielle Beesley was cooler and more restrained, insinuatingly sinister rather than openly intimidating. Before their rivalry over Edmund fractures their relationship, they shared a disconcerting capacity for sharing a joke, finding their father’s love-test raucously amusing and collapsing into a bout of unstoppable laughter as they decide that he doesn’t “need” even “one” attendant of his own, their mounting, shrill hysteria working in unnerving counterpoint to his “Reason not the need” speech (2.2.452-75). For once, Cordelia was as strong as her sisters in the opening scene, looking and sounding just as fierce. In Eve Winterbottom’s assured performance, the favourite daughter came across as honest but uncompromising, complacently certain of her right to her father’s love. Later in the play, her strength and authority were more measured, more thoughtful and more sympathetic. These were excellent performances, marred only, in Beesley’s case, by a textual howler for which Nunn must bear the blame. Speaking of Goneril, and Lear’s failure to “value her desert” (2.2.328), she made nonsense of the line by stressing the first rather than the second syllable of the noun.


In many ways, the performance that was most revealing of this production’s acting strength was that of Tim Younger, a first-rate actor whose wide experience includes playing Boult in Pericles for the RSC’s Amateur Ensemble at the Courtyard Theatre in 2012. I had expected him to be playing Kent or Cornwall rather than the potentially unrewarding role of Albany, and at first I thought he seemed disengaged from the production. In his early scenes I found him weak and complacent, but he was ahead of me, of course. The weakness and complacency belonged to Albany, and Younger developed his characterisation, in line with the text, to reveal the personal strength and moral stature Albany acquires in the later stages of the play, gaining both physical and vocal authority along the way. In passing, it occurs to me to observe just how many of the characters in Lear undergo a similar process of moral growth. Even though few of them survive their transformation, and those who do are left stretched on “the rack of this tough world” (5.3.313), I always find something uplifting in Shakespeare’s demonstration that people can change for the better.


What, then, of Joe Kenneway’s performance in the title role? Chris Gray, in the Oxford Times, found him unconventional, “a strapping Lear […] some way removed from the ‘poor, weak, infirm old man’ of his own description”.[5] As such, Kenneway’s youngish, stocky, vigorous Lear made a convincing post-apocalyptic tribal chieftain but an unlikely victim of rapacious daughters and mental disintegration. He made the transition entirely convincing, however, charting Lear’s progression from whimsical authority to physical and emotional fragility with great skill. His delivery of the text was lucid and eloquent, his voice resonant and expressive, with just a hint of Ulster. There were moments when he lacked variety, most notably in the “Blow winds” aria (3.2.1-24), always a particular challenge, in which he was partly hampered by having to deliver the opening lines while entering through the audience. His cursing of Goneril, though, was spine-tingling; his madness, in a crown of thorns intertwined with flowers, effectively underplayed; his subsequent awakening in a salvaged wheelchair touching; and his lament over the dead Cordelia heart-breaking. If I say that Kenneway was never the star, always an integral part of the ensemble, this is intended as high praise. Oxford Theatre Guild’s 60th anniversary production was in safe hands.


[1] Michael Dobson, Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[2] Michael Dobson, “Writing about [Shakespearian] Performance”, in Shakespeare Survey, 58, ed. by Peter Holland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 160-68.

[3] Lear was played by Robert Booth and, as an incidental theatre-history footnote, one of my A Level students,  Alex Waldmann – now a leading actor with the RSC, National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe – made his debut as the King of France. See Christopher Gray, “School Alumni Share the Media Spotlight”, Oxford Times, 7 August 2014.

[4] Isobel Pellow and Jacqui Lewis, “A Post-Apocalyptic World: The Design of King Lear”, in King Lear, Oxford Theatre Guild, 2015, programme.

[5] Chris Gray, “King Lear”, Oxford Times, 9 July 2015.

Peter Malin

Author: Peter Malin

Peter Malin is an independent scholar with a particular interest in the performance of early modern drama. He has contributed articles and reviews to ROMARD, Early Theatre, Cahiers Elisabethains and Shakespeare, and is the author of A Level Student Text Guides on The Winter's Tale, The Alchemist, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. He is a retired teacher, and is actively involved in amateur theatre as both actor and director, including many productions for Oxford Theatre Guild and the Shakespeare Institute.