King Lear – February 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Friday 17th February 2012

I’m rating this at 9.5/10 tonight, it was so good. As we’re seeing this again, and there’s some room for it to come on, I want to leave the 10/10 rating, just in case.

The set at the start: a table covered with black cloth edged with gold tassels stood centre and left of the stage, with an hourglass seat or throne behind it to our left, and at that end of the table there was a gold coronet. At the other end of the table was a stool covered with cream brocade, also with complementary tassels. Behind this were two other stools in dark blue and red, on either side of the stage. The pillar nearest us had the hexagonal seat round it, and all the pillars were disguised as tree trunks (silver birch, from the look of it) with some stubby bits of branch projecting out higher up. Behind the throne was a black door with a corresponding gap in the seating.

To open the first scene a map was spread on the table, and someone was studying it – turned out to be Kent. Gloucester’s comment about the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany was very relevant in this context, and Kent rolled up the map before he responded, holding it in his hand. Edmund came on and stood on the other side of the table; while Gloucester introduced him to Kent his expression gave away his discomfort at the story of his birth, though he put a sycophantic smile on his face when necessary. When he was told who Kent was, his desire to serve him may have been genuine – it was hard to tell – but I certainly had the impression that Edmund was a young man determined to climb the greasy pole by any available means.

When the court arrived, Goneril and Regan came through first with their husbands, and took their places by the stools – red for Goneril, blue for Regan. After them came Lear and a servant who sat to one side and wrote everything down – he had a small writing desk with him. There was a pause while Lear waited for Cordelia, who finally came skipping on with a girlish giggle. Lear led her round to the central stool and sat her down, then stood behind her placing his hands on her shoulders and kissing her hair, very tenderly. Then he moved round to the throne and as he made to sit down he gestured to the other daughters to sit, a huge difference in attitude.

Goneril drew the short straw in having to go first in praising her father; her speech was rather stumbling as she groped her way to find suitable phrases and comparisons to please the king. I couldn’t see Regan’s reaction to this as she was sitting on our side of the stage with Cornwall standing behind her. When Lear showed Goneril the extent of her new realm, she looked very pleased.

Regan was more assured on her turn – she’d had some time to prepare – and I got the impression this was some kind of family game, with neither of the elder sisters taking it seriously. Goneril didn’t look at all put out when Regan topped her efforts, and the laughter at what Cordelia was saying sounded almost genuine. Cordelia gave us her asides from the stool and her lines were delivered very strongly, although she looked very young compared to her sisters. This was a forthright Cordelia who spoke her mind, and when she pleaded with Lear to exonerate her of any serious wrongdoing when France and Burgundy were present, I found her description of her ‘offence’ much clearer than before, which meant that France’s recognition of it made more sense. I felt she and France were well matched, as he obviously appreciated her for herself, and this contrasted well with Goneril’s marriage – she’s married to an older man and it’s clearly an arranged match. Burgundy was using a cane and limping a bit during this scene, and also as the Herald later; hopefully he’ll be recovered when we see this next – it’s a dangerous life being a fight director.

Lear’s response to Cordelia’s “nothing” was quite gentle at first – he just couldn’t believe she wouldn’t join in the game. This was where the rest of the family were laughing as well. After a bit, though, the rage came out, and the others moved quickly to get out of Lear’s way as he threw his tantrum. Kent’s interjection didn’t help matters, and soon everyone was leaving, in different directions. Regan seemed much more relaxed about their father’s behaviour than Goneril, whose “We must do something, and i’ th’ heat” became quite desperate at the end.

After they had all left, Edmund came back on and made good use of the writing desk while the servants cleared the stage. They took the cover off the table, the covers off the three stools, and the throne went as well. During this time, Edmund was penning the very letter that would cause all the problems in his family. He made as if to scrunch it up and throw it away, but kept it and then launched into his diatribe against primogeniture. When he used the word ‘legitimate’, he recognised how good it was and went over to the writing desk to add it into the letter. I could see the messy nature of the writing from where I sat – he did wave the letter around a bit – and so I was very pleased when Gloucester came to read it that he had to look hard to get some of the words. ‘Legitimate’ had clearly been added, and that was one of the ones he had to peer at a bit. Again, Gloucester’s first response was sadness and grief at being deceived, but then his anger took over.

Edgar came on eating a pear while Edmund sat on the pillar seat near us to do his groaning – nothing else to report for this bit. The set was then changed to a table and two stools, one at either end of the table, with red covers – we were in Goneril territory. After the king arrived, Kent was brought on and laid on the floor, face down. He said most of his lines there too, until the “authority” bit. When Goneril turned up to speak to Lear, Oswald went past them all and out of the door, carrying some papers; I realised this was the letter Goneril had been writing to Regan, a nice touch. Goneril seemed quite intimidated when she confronted Lear. One of Lear’s men was invading her space, looking menacing, and her speech was almost incomprehensible, never mind formal. When Lear cursed Goneril with Albany there too, I was aware that he was cursing Albany as well, in a sense, as he was wishing for neither of them to have children. Goneril was really shocked by this curse. The fool’s dialogue was clear, though I never felt I got much of his personality from this portrayal. I didn’t see much of him at times, as he lurked over on our side of the stage, off to our left.

After this scene, the table and stools were cleared, I think, and the stage was pretty open for most of the rest of the play. Edmund met Curran to hear about the arrival of the Duke of Cornwall, and then stage managed Edgar’s ‘escape’. When Regan and Cornwall arrived, I had the impression that they weren’t definitely villains at this point but that circumstances pushed them that way.

When Kent was waiting outside, he saw Oswald coming and lurked in the shadows to avoid being recognised. When he did come forward and Oswald recognised him, Oswald did his best to avoid drawing his sword, definitely a coward. Kent took off Oswald’s cloak and dropped it so that when Oswald bent to pick it up, he could tip up Oswald’s scabbard causing the sword to come out – drawn by default. That’s when Oswald called for help, and as soon as it arrived he started posing with the sword as if he was more than ready to fight – very funny. After the discussion involving the Duke of Cornwall, Kent was put into the stocks to our right. He didn’t read any letter by the light of the moon – he just laid back and slept for a bit.

When Goenril arrived, it seemed to me that the sisters hadn’t decided what to do about their father, but when Regan went for reducing Lear’s entourage to a mere 25, Goneril saw the opportunity, and then they both worked together, like lionesses, to close the trap. The remaining attendants – 1 lord and the disguised Kent – looked very unhappy during this discussion.

The scene where Lear meets Poor Tom was difficult to watch, especially as ‘Tom’ had bits of twig or some such stuck in his arm. Lear’s grasp of the nature of humanity at its simplest was well delivered, and this time Lear hardly got his trousers unbuttoned before Kent and the fool were on him to stop him taking his clothes off. He’d already thrown his coat and hat on the ground.

The shelter scene was set up using a small bench with a saddle on it, several cushions and a blanket. A lantern was hung up on one of the pillars. I reckoned the fool was suspicious of Edgar’s mad performance; he was looking at him intently all the time, up till the point where Lear was about to lie down and sleep, then he came over and sat by the king. Edgar was uncomfortable with the fool’s scrutiny, and very aware of it. When the three men were sitting on the bench together to arraign the sisters, I was also aware that two of them were in disguise, and therefore, in a sense, lying. The fool’s disappearance was just that – the scene in the shelter ended, with Lear, Kent and Gloucester heading off, leaving the fool and Edgar alone. The fool was holding the lantern, and simply blew it out – darkness. This was also where they took the interval.

The second half opened with the run up to the blinding scene – always a difficult one. This time, Gloucester was brought over to our corner and tied to a chair right by us. When Cornwall took out the first eye, he got a spatter of blood on his face; I thought at the end of the scene that this may have been done to get the shock and horror across to the audience behind the action – it worked! The servant drew his dagger, Cornwall drew his, and Goneril finished the servant off. There was more blood spatter with the second eye, and what looked like a small round object (nearly done now). I don’t know what the audience on the other side saw – yet! One more thing, Regan was again unnaturally excited by the sight of blood – I could see her becoming a total sociopath if she’d lived, getting her thrills from blood, torture and death.

The person who helped Gloucester after his blinding, and whom he asked to bring clothes for Poor Tom, was played by Eleanor Yates, doubling with Cordelia; it was a nice touch to have the two most caring people played by the same actress.

I was very moved by the scenes between Edgar and Gloucester. When Edgar came on talking about the benefits of having the worst happen to you, he looked very happy with life, all in all. This was when I thought he would make a good king with all he’s been through. When his father arrived, things changed, and I was moved to tears several times as their relationship developed. When Oswald found Gloucester, I was aware that he was only going to draw on him because he thought he was defenceless – the cowardice showing through again.

There wasn’t much laughter from this audience, and perhaps it wasn’t the funniest Lear we’ve seen, but there is a fair amount of humour and I felt this performance warranted more than it got. Edmund’s debate about which sister to have was an exception, though, as we laughed plenty.

Edmund had a real smirk on him when confronting Albany at the end, using the royal ‘we’ before he was fully entitled to it. The duel was good, with both brothers having a go. They clashed swords right by us, and the swords ended up lying on the hexagonal seat, with Edmund drawing his dagger and Edgar reduced to his wits. Goneril was excited by the prospect of Edmund winning – I reckon she was looking forward to her husband having to fight Edmund, so that Edmund could kill him ‘legitimately’.

When the messenger was sent off to rescue Lear and Cordelia, he ran off past us, but Lear brought Cordelia on through the doorway at the far end of the space. His “howl”s were strong, and directed round the room. Kent didn’t walk off at the end; he just knelt by Lear and Cordelia’s bodies, grieving. I had thought earlier in the second half that Edgar would make a better king for having suffered in the way he does, and at the end that impression was even stronger as he accepted the kingship role and spoke the closing lines. He had his back to me this time, so I’m keen to see it from the other side next time to confirm this impression.

Some other bits I noticed: Albany was much stronger than in most productions, really angry with Goneril after she returned from Gloucester’s place. Regan wore a very small black shawl after Cornwall’s death, but only for one scene – a short period of mourning for her. Kent’s ring – we saw him take it off and put it in his pocket when he was first in disguise. Then he took it out to give it to the other chap who was going to Dover. Finally Cordelia gave it back to him when they meet up before Lear was brought on, sleeping, in a wheelchair. When Goneril and Edmund were kissing, Oswald watched for a bit, but glanced away towards the end. There were no bodies brought on stage for once, and they finished early, at 11:10pm.

I love the way SATTF tell these stories so clearly, and without all the fancy designs that can clutter up other productions sometimes. I find I get very involved in the storytelling, and enjoy these performances enormously, even if there aren’t many visual tags for me to remember them by later on, e.g. the eye in the water tank, the sweep of gaudy costumes in the Russian style, etc. The text was a bespoke blend of quarto and folio, so we heard some lines we hadn’t heard before, including the Curran bit and also Edgar mentioning Kent’s visit to his father before he died; this was when he was talking to Albany about what he’s been up to after the duel. I wasn’t aware of missing anything though, apart from Kent not reading the letter while he was in the stocks.

The performances were all good, with some lovely details in each of the main characters. John Shrapnel’s Lear was an interesting portrayal. He wasn’t angry all the time, but he did have his rages, and he lost his reason believably and movingly. It was a really good evening, and I’m glad we’ve booked to see this again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

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