The male buttock is not something usually considered when talking about plays. We all know actors have them, but usually they are well-hidden and can be so taken for granted that they don’t get a mention. Not so in the current Darker Purpose Theatre production of King Lear at The Cockpit where Dominic Kelly’s strenuously physical Poor Tom spends a good part of the evening in the most revealing of costumes. Consisting mainly of rags – or rather mainly of not-rags – it could date from any period, but the military garb of the earls and dukes places this Lear in late-Victorian Britain.
The night I visited director Lewis Reynolds announced that owing to chemotherapy drugs 79 year old David Ryall, who plays Lear, was having difficulties remembering his lines and so would be referring to the script. This could have been jarring, bringing you out of the play whenever Lear looked at his yellow highlighted lines, but rather it added a layer of decrepitude and further resonance to Lear’s claim to be crawling towards death. It felt as though he was preoccupied with something else, always looking in his black book whilst talking to others, only half in the real world at the best of times.
Ryan Wichert’s effervescent Fool wanders on stage, announces ‘I’ll be playing Hamlet‘, and starts the play of power and dynastic struggle with a joke about Obama and Putin. Reminded that the control and location of power is still a big question, Ryall is pushed on stage in a wheelchair to divide his kingdom, Cordelia, the only daughter who walks with him, clearly involved in his care. With halting delivery from the start, slow gestures and long pauses he presents a pathetic, elderly man already losing his mind. This makes sense of his over-hasty banishment of Cordelia and Kent. Here he is not an absolute monarch doing what absolute monarchs do, but a mixed up, confused old gent.
The Cockpit is configured in the round and the production is well choreographed to take advantage of the four exits. The scenery is sparse but atmospheric. Five rectangular gauze sheets hang from a pentagon over the central stage. When the action moves for a brief period to the balcony you may be watching through them, which gives the scene a blurred visual quality – as though the director has applied an Instagram filter to the play.
Where ever you sit you should get a good view, although given the small size of the theatre the in the round nature means your backdrop is always other audience members. The main constant in my line of sight was a bearded man in a bright red shirt. Luckily he was quite a sit-still kind of guy, but when he moved he did draw my attention away from the action between us.
Stephen Christos portrays Gloucester as a nervous yes-man, desperate to please and easily fooled. Credulously flipping through books to find where life is imitating prophecies, he is no match for Michael Luke Walsh’s Edmund. Imbued with a stiff, repressed nature, Edmund appears to be forcing himself to act as badly as he does. Amazed how easily his nefarious plans come together, his late repentance is quite believable.
It’s a shame that Andrew Lloyd Webber hadn’t written Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in time for Lear to learn the effects of favouring one child over the others. His undisguised preference for Cordelia has had similar effects as Jacob’s – Goneril and Regan feel the same as Reuben, Naphtali, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Gad, Asher and Zebulun. Oh, and Issachar. I always forget Issachar. But with wispy-haired Lear referring to notes and appearing mad from the start Wendy Morgan’s slinky Goneril and Nikki Leigh Scott’s bitter Regan appear more sympathetic than usual. In their V&A bustles they are dealing with a man who should have signed a power of attorney years ago. Their behaviour feels less base and ungrateful but more pragmatic. A king in all but name is one thing, but does a madman need a hundred knights?
The Ryall family have a large part in this production. David is the main man, whilst real daughter Charlie plays the daughter who refuses to flatter the royal codger. With Ryall the Elder playing a Lear that is in his dotage from the start this looks like a particularly bad decision by Cordelia. It might be nice to tell an unadorned truth but pills are best sweetened when dealing with the senile. Imogen Ryall takes the small part of the doctor, telling Cordelia that Lear would rather hear from her (Cordelia), a statement that has a further twist given the two women are actually sisters.
Lear’s first appearance in a wheelchair gives the impression he is needy and helpless, even though he walks around during the rest of the play. As he begins decrepit and already appearing fairly mad, there is little space for the character to develop. In the mad scenes Lear appears no madder than he was before.
David Ryall stars, but this production is about the rest of the cast orbiting a weary King. Together they give an absorbing performance, showing unfamiliar nuances in the relationships between the characters.
King Lear is playing until the 29th March at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone