Talawa Theatre Company has been making theatre since 1986 and to mark their 30th anniversary year, and to commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death artistic director Michael Buffong returns to the play he first directed in 1994, King Lear.
In this co-production between Talawa Theatre, Manchester’s Royal Exchange and Birmingham Rep, Don Warrington steps into the royal breaches and takes on the title role. William Shakespeare’s story of a kingdom divided with devastating political and personal repercussions still remains highly pertinent to a modern audience. Striking a chord with a contemporary crowd particularly in the wake of Scottish Independence and the looming EU opt in or opt out discussion. Perhaps most poignantly, this production explores ideas around our aging society and dementia.
Entering to the single steady beat of the drum, Warrington appears wearing a heavy cloak and furs, every inch the look of a formidable leader. He traces the dominant character’s slow descent from greatness to confusion and shame.
“I have, so to speak, lost myself.”
Fists clenched desperately holding on to the sleeve of his robes indicative of his struggle to retain clarity in an increasingly murky world. There is some well-observed physicality from Warrington – his awkward gait and empty stare are all suggestive of a man battling with dementia. However, Warrington’s delivery of the text is lacking in fluidity which means that some of Shakespeare’s powerful rhetoric is lost at times and most particularly during the famous storm in the wilderness scene.
Signe Beckmann’s design is completely stripped back to an empty performance space with the characters dressed in period costumes, and the danger is that it all feels very habitual RSC and old fashioned. The combination of Johanna Tom’s atmospheric lighting design and Tayo Akinbode’s ethereal soundscape is a match made in heaven, especially during the apocalyptic downpour at the end of the first half.
The ensemble cast are all impressive and fearless throughout and all give remarkable performances. Miltos Yerolemou gives a well-balanced performance as The Fool, both humorous and touching; Alfred Enoch gives a mesmerising performance as Edgar – compassionate and honest, much in contrast to his brother Edmund, an ambitious opportunist, again played strongly by Fraser Ayres. Pepter Lunkuse shines as the good-hearted, youngest daughter Cordelia and Rakie Ayola and Debbie Korley give fully realised performances as bloodthirsty sisters, Goneril and Regan.
Philip Whitchurch as The Earl of Gloucester is outstanding with his gory ocular fate prompting the most audible response from the audience during the lengthy 3 and a half hour running time.
King Lear is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 7 May 2015.