King Lear is a play about old age, built around the titanic figure of the king himself, whose descent into madness when confronted with that ageing colours the lives of everyone around him.
With this in mind, it’s an interesting choice for a student production which relies on the efforts of young actors, many decades distant from the image of decrepitude and senility so attached to Lear by now. It was only natural, in that context, for this version to present Lear as aggressive, ruthless, and rather unsympathetic.
Satyajit Amin’s king is a domineering presence, in an interpretation which plays up his unfeeling self-absorption and does not find any vulnerability in his initial situation. Amin’s depiction of this overbearing narcissism is compelling to start with but becomes a little wearing after a while; his performance picks up significantly as Lear falls further and further into insanity, which is portrayed with poignancy and feeling. It helps significantly that in these scenes he often plays off the character of Edgar, also driven mad by his family, and acted with impressive force by Seth Daood. Daood’s Edgar begins as a weak-willed fop, before visibly breaking down under the pressure of his half-brother’s plots against him; this emotionally complex transition is one Daood captures very effectively.
Edmund, the half-brother, is played with brooding intensity by Dayo Afolabi. Afolabi’s initial soliloquy was delivered with real power and meaning, setting the stage for a performance which was consistently very moving whenever he held the focus. He somewhat faded into the background, however, when on stage with other characters, not offering as much conspiratorial cunning he had shared with the audience. Perhaps his most interesting and rewarding interactions were with Anna Trowby as Regan, who manages to convey a genuine sense of fixation in her relationship with the mysterious Edmund.
This production’s greatest problem is its incoherence in the ensemble scenes featuring Lear’s enemies, who drive the second half of the drama. Some of their scenes together are truly thrilling, but more often than not they get bogged down, lacking the fluency or sense of family tension needed to build a sense of jeopardy as the play reaches its climax. A great deal of this stems from the decision to modernise the story, setting it in a modern business empire, with Lear as CEO. This is an intriguing idea in principle, and the wonderfully understated set design made me really excited to see how it would play out, but unfortunately the production made the fatal error of falling between two stools in how it conveyed that updated setting to the audience.
Ideally, the play should either have not altered the text particularly but relied on staging to take us into the present day, or properly adjusted the text itself so the play flowed and the stakes could be underlined correctly. Instead, it simply replaced the words ‘king’ and ‘master’ with the word ‘boss’, a deeply jarring register shift which did not work at all when language about sovereignty and political authority was maintained, and swapped Shakespeare’s battle for a court case. Again, this could have been compelling as an idea, but the complete lack of justification for this court case, which emerged out of nowhere to govern the plot and then disappeared, was a sadly missed opportunity.
This was a strange, patchy, and in some places superb set of performances, with some profound nuance and genuine poignancy coexisting oddly with bizarre stylistic decisions.