The Lazarus Theatre Company, whose successful season has also included Women Of Troy and As You Like It, are into their final week of performances of King Lear at The Space on London’s Isle of Dogs.
As you’d expect from a Lazarus production, their King Lear is fast, vibrant and told with great visual flair. The frail old man of Shakespeare’s tragedy is re-imagined; played here by a young woman, Jennifer Shakesby. The simple changing of masculine to feminine pronouns, and the presentation of a young actor in the title part already forces the audience to think about Shakespeare’s play anew. It’s an approach that works well in exploiting the youthfulness of the company and its wide resource of talented young actors, which is partly why their takes on the classics are so fresh. In the great tradition of reparatory theatre the actors are well-used to one another’s performance styles and once again cohere into a fantastic ensemble.
This is a brooding, austere King Lear, even for one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, since it has no Fool to lighten the mood or accompany Lear on her descent into madness, focussing on Lear and her plotting daughters and keeping the action tightly between two or three characters at a time.
Jennifer Shakesby makes the role of Lear her own, achieving much through an authoritative, regal voice. In Lear’s rage she is most powerfully compelling in moments of glowering stillness rather than agitated pacing. Without the recourse to blaming old age, Shakesby’s anger and subsequent insanity finds its roots in a mother’s hurt, and it’s an angle she achieves with creditable sincerity. The ever-dependable Alice Brown is terrific as the callous but charismatic Regan; whilst Matthew Mowat instils the easily-duped Gloucester with great nobility. His fate wandering about the wilderness comes across with real poignancy. In a piece of many villains, Gloucester’s son Edmund further muddies the water. Lewis Davidson conveys Edmund’s duplicity well, but perhaps more could have been made of his love triangle with Gonerill and Regan, with his ‘Lothario’ subplot present but underdeveloped.
The opening act places Lear centre stage, with her three daughters and various courtiers circling behind the audience. This approach gives Shakesby full reign to play to all sides as her Lear waits like a fly trapped in the middle of a spider’s web, little realising that she is crafting her own downfall. In establishing the story, director Ricky Dukes chooses to leave his actors alone or in pairs in the centre, which can be exposing; but his confidence pays off as the actors hold their own. Interjections from all corners of the space keeps the focus on the events centre stage and gives the audience a constant sense of forward movement.
There are some great theatrical moments. The capture and blinding of Gloucester is like something out of a horror movie, with stage in darkness and lit solely by hard hat lights worn by silent witnesses to his torture moving in slow precise movements with occasional breaks into disorientating jerkiness. Lear’s all-important descent into madness is brilliantly imaginative too, with blue lighting, smoke and wind providing a barren backdrop against which the ensemble contorts itself into rock-like shapes upon which Lear climbs. It creates a memorable image of Lear railing against the elements as much as against herself, which is the most evocative element of the play.
Running to just over one hundred minutes, King Lear moves with an unrelenting fast pace, with actors lightning quick on cues and entrances. As it hits all the right notes it fits neatly into Lazarus’ season and into the company’s ethos of taking classic plays and presenting them accessibly: enjoying a richness of language but keeping a firm handle on the story.