Having never seen Shakespeare’s King Lear before, it was with great anticipation that I sat down to watch the reprise of the original 2014 production of Queen Lear, directed and adapted by Phil Willmott.
I received a programme and spent some time reading it before the production, as most people do. I was intrigued to see that Willmott had gone into detail about putting a status on social media asking for people’s opinions on casting the legendary character as a woman. It obviously made for a heated discussion, for Willmott listed some of the answers he received in the programme, some of which went into detail on how a mother/daughter rather than a father/daughter relationship would alter the dynamics of the play.
After reading this, I was eager to see whether Willmott had taken any of these interesting points on board and produced a play that broke the barrier of expectation with Ursula Mohan in the title role… What we were left with was a conventional portrayal of the character, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I will explain further, but first we must divulge into the plot.
Shakespeare’s story begins with the King (or in this case, Queen) of England dividing his kingdom into three equal sections to be given to his daughters Goneril, Regan and his favourite, Cordelia. He requests that each of them speaks of how much they love him for this. The two eldest women speak somewhat untruthfully about how much love they have for their father, whereas the youngest simply explains that there are no words to describe her love. This throws Lear into despair and he disowns his daughter, forcing her to marry and move to France. From there the audience watch as Goneril and Regan fight for the remaining kingdom and Lear descends into a madness that cannot be undone.
As I was saying, before the play I was built up into thinking that I was going to see something that had never been done before with this part - something unexpected that delved into the relationship that a mother has with her 3 daughters whilst spiralling into madness. Instead what I witnessed was a woman performing the character in her own way. At first, I wondered why there wasn’t more of a message; why Mohan and Willmott hadn’t come up with something truly spectacular. The throughline of “See! See how it changes with a woman in the title role!” But what I took away from it is that Mohan did her job. The point they were making was that she was the best person to play the part and it just so happened that she was a woman. The message was simply, “Why should it matter?”
Overall, there are some deft performances in this production: Rosamund Hine’s Goneril being one of them. She was quiet, calculating and serpent-like which made for wonderful observing and well-matched against Elizabeth Appleby’s slightly more frenetic and hot-tempered Regan.
The standout performance for me was the role of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund played by Ben Kerfoot. He skilfully charmed the audience (and all the women in the play) with his cheeky grin and machiavellian wit. So much so, that when he finally rose to power in the second half, we as an audience weren’t sure whether to be pleased or not. A true Shakespearian villain isn’t hated by everyone, but rather gains respect and then swipes it from under them. This was executed perfectly by Kerfoot.
However, some elements of the production felt a little unclear for me on the night that I attended. I wasn’t 100% sure of the setting and particularly, the time period. There were a couple of moments where iPhone’s made appearances, a device I loathe when watching a recontextualised play. Surely there is a better way of letting the audience know the period in which the production is set rather than pulling out a device the audience has been told to switch off? There was also reference to a Stevie Wonder song, but apart from that there was not much evidence of a modern day setting.
As well as this, Mohan seemed to get off to a rocky start with her lines - speaking over others and I even heard a little “Erm” which broke the dramatic tension of the scene. Elements such as this prevented the production’s slick, tightness that I would hope to see on press night.
Having said this, I had an enjoyable evening and applaud Willmott for not endorsing the keen onlookers who wanted a reason for this dramatic change of casting - but rather did the most feminist thing of all by having faith in his actor and not questioning whether it was a bold move or not.
Queen Lear runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 8th October.
(c) 2016 Molly Miller
Playwright - William Shakespeare
Director - Phil Willmott
Assistant Director - Simon Purse
Lighting Designer - Jason Meininger
Sound Designer - James Nicholson
Queen Lear - Ursula Mohan
Gloucester - Ashley Russell
Cordelia - Hannah Kerin
Cornwall - Jonathan Reid
The Fool - Dan Slade
King of France - Nick Howden-Steenstr
Regan - Elizabeth Appleby
Goneril - Rosamund Hine
Edgar - Nicholas Limm
Edmund - Ben Kerfoot
Albany - Mark Garfield
Oswald - Christopher Laishley