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Barrie Rutter, King Lear Barrie Rutter in the title role of Northern Broadsides' King Lear. Photo: Nobby Clark

King Lear
By William Shakespeare
Theatre Royal, Bath and Tour
Reviewed by Michael Burland. March 18, 2015

This is a Lear unlike any you've seen before. It comes from Northern Broadsides, a theater company from Yorkshire in the north of England which specialises in taking Shakespeare and other classical plays and shaking new life into them, most obviously by performing them in northern accents, stripping them of much pompousness and exposing the text to a new appreciation. The group, born in 1992, was the brainchild of the accomplished National Theatre actor, Barrie Rutter, who was a lead actor in two of Tony Harrison's groundbreaking plays in the 1980s – The Mysteries and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. He is still its Artistic Director, but here he has not attempted to combine that with his other in this production – taking the title role, one of Shakespeare's most testing. Instead he had put himself in the hands of director Jonathan Miller.

A veteran of all forms of the stage from the satire clubs of the Swinging Sixties to grand opera, Miller says that Lear is "The most interesting play Shakespeare ever wrote". In order to show it, he has done the opposite of many productions which robe the ailing king and his court in grand fineries. This king is a man, not a demigod monarch. He, his family and retainers are all dressed (in the Elizabethan style of Shakespeare's time) sparely and simply – as is the stage itself, unusually a large riser, a stage upon a stage so the whole audience can see the actors full-length.

Barrie Rutter, King Lear Barrie Rutter as Lear, with Catherine Kinsella's Cordelia. Photo: Nobby Clark
The story is similarly stripped to the core. Lear's tribulations flow from his own mistakes. First in deciding to divide his strong, erstwhile happy kingdom between his three daughters. And second, disinheriting Cordelia, his true and loving daughter, after misconstruing her reaction to the news.

The acting is universally fine: The villain, Edmund, is half snake, half wolf, hiding his evil intent behind ostensible weakness. Sean Cernow's portrayal starts as near-'panto', almost sparking booing and hissing from the audience. Equally, Catherine Kinsella's Cordelia is Cinderella-like, with Regan (Nicola Sanderson) and Goneril (Helen Sheals) as her Ugly Sisters, but they all evolve, becoming more complicated and involving.

The Fool is beautifully played by Fine Time Fontayne, a well respected Yorkshire actor and not, as his name (which derives from time spent as a musician) suggests, a high stepping dude from New Orleans, although his white facepaint here lends him a voodoo Mardi Gras look. The traditional character who points out the king's follies and gets away with it, he is also an old and trusted comrade of his master as the king drifts into madness. Gloucester's (John Branwell) devotion to his king is touching and Jack Wilkinson's Edgar engaging, while Jos Vantyler's high-camp Oswald (Goneril's steward) brings a refreshing humor you won't have seen before.

The joy of Shakespeare is that the retelling of his tales constantly brings out new meanings, and this is a great example. See it for many reasons, but mainly for the great Barrie Rutter's Lear: the man behind the crown.

King Lear opened in Halifax then toured to Hull, Bath and Cheltenham. It can still be seen at:
West Yorkshire Playhouse (April 8–18), 0113 213 7700 www.wyp.org.uk
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (April 21–25) 01723 370 541www.sjt.com
Liverpool Playhouse (April 28 to May 2) www.everymanplayhouse.com
The Lowry, Salford Quays (May 5–9) www.thelowry.com
York International Shakespeare Festival (May 12–16) www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
Rose Theatre, Kingston (May 19–23) www.rosetheatrekingston.org
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme (May 27 to June 13) www.newvictheatre.org.uk


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