Sunday, 29 July 2018

Review: King Lear (alone) (Inamoment Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 19th July 2018
International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Another Greater Manchester Fringe review from me… this time, a one-man show performed at the Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Inamoment Theatre staged a production of Frank Bramwell’s sequel/reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear: King Lear (alone). The piece begins with Lear alone (funnily enough) on the heath, after the events of Shakespeare’s play have ended. The erstwhile king reflects on the things that have led him to this point, variously railing against his perceived persecutors and beseeching comfort from his family and followers. It’s an intense monologue, which moves Lear through heightened emotions of anger, fear and distress, to more reflective moments, tenderness and even acceptance.

That said, King Lear (alone) isn’t a straightforward sequel. This isn’t simply what Lear did or thought after Shakespeare’s play finished. Nor does it move Lear to a different place or introduce new actions or characters. Rather, Bramwell’s script is more of a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play, told entirely through the voice of the protagonist. Other characters are addressed, but do not speak. (There are points at which Lear calls out to Goneril, Regan and others, and appears to hear something in response, but the audience only gleans this through his reaction.) Bramwell weaves lines taken from Shakespeare with his own lines (and, at one point, a bit of a plot twist) to create a version of the narrative presented entirely from the perspective of the unstable – and abandoned – king.

And this really works. Bramwell’s own lines fit seamlessly into the reordered Shakespearian dialogue, but also reveal the presence of other influences. In particular, the fragmented futility of Lear’s desperate ramblings feels almost Beckettian in places, as lines and phrases were repeated ad absurdum. This is heightened by the absence of response from other characters. No matter how much Lear wants the situation to be explained or resolved, no reply is forthcoming.

Of course, a play of this type lives or dies by the standard of the performance. Fortunately, things were in very safe hands here. Bob Young plays Lear excellently, fully embodying Bramwell’s pitiful, yet not quite resigned, king. Young’s Lear begins as a broken and confused man, but over the course of the performance moves back and forth as the quixotic moods of the character demand. Young offers a (slightly unhinged) joviality in his delivery of lines from early in Shakespeare’s play, a deep melancholy in his depiction of Lear’s lonely state, and full-blown Shakespearean wrath in his condemnation of those who have abandoned him – without going over-the-top and losing the audience’s engagement with the character.

For me, this engagement was one of the most surprising things about the production. I will admit to never being a huge King Lear fan (though I’m pretty familiar with the play), due to the distinct lack of sympathy I’ve always had with the central character. In King Lear (alone), however, we are invited ‘in’ and asked to consider things more directly from Lear’s perspective. While my anger and annoyance at Lear hasn’t entirely gone away – Bramwell’s script and Young’s performance don’t entirely dispel the notion that Lear brings much of his suffering on himself – there is way more scope to pity, sympathize and (most surprisingly) forgive Lear for his erratic excesses.

The staging of the play adds to this effect. As expected, King Lear is indeed alone, on a sparse set (no backdrop, save a wonderfully evocative bare tree) and minimal props. While there are no other characters, he is ‘joined’ on stage by two figures. A creepy (and eyeless) jester’s marotte becomes a companion for a time, and Lear addresses this ‘fool’ with Shakespeare’s lines and Bramwell’s interpolations. And from that evocative tree hangs a blonde-haired doll, which (rather effectively, I thought) Lear ignores until around two-thirds of the way through the play, building a dramatic tension in audience member’s familiar with Shakespeare’s play and growing curiosity in those who are not.*

Ultimately, there are a couple of different ways to interpret King Lear (alone). For some people, it will be a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play – i.e. we’re seeing Shakespeare’s play unfold, filtered through the perspective of a single character. For others, it is a straightforward sequel (sidestepping the death of Lear) – the events of Shakespeare’s play have concluded, and Lear is left to reflect on all that has happened in order to decide what the future might hold. But it’s also possible – and very tempting – to see this as an even closer sequel to Shakespeare’s play – Lear has indeed died, and all that we see is a dying man’s dream or a purgatorial vision.

I thoroughly enjoyed King Lear (alone). It’s great play, made even better by Young’s strong work in bringing this version of Lear to life. Like all good literary reimaginings, it has made me reconsider the original and has changed the way I look at King Lear. While the play has now finished it’s GM Fringe run, it is moving to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, and I would highly recommend it.

* I should say, I went to see King Lear (alone) with my other half, who knows nothing about Shakespeare’s play. This gave us the chance to compare our experiences of the play, given the different awareness we had when we came into the performance.

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