Review: King Lear by Northern Broadsides

King Lear by Northern Broadsides

University of York

May 15, 2015

Northern Broadsides website

Northern Broadsides’ production of King Lear provided the centrepiece of the first York International Shakespeare Festival – an essential diversion for devotees of the Bard in York and far beyond.

The production, directed by Jonathan Miller, had received rave reviews from critics throughout the land. But did it live up to the hype?

In the darkness of the TFTV auditorium at the University of York’s bullishly modern Heslington East campus, the minimalism of Northern Broadsides’ production is instantly striking, with just a few pieces of furniture to hint at a set and members of the cast spread across the stage like chess pieces.

In the space of a few scenes, any doubts about this approach are vanquished.

Jonathan Miller’s King Lear shines by virtue of its characters – Barrie Rutter’s cantankerous Lear, the truly wicked Regan (Nicola Sanderson) and her hot-tempered husband Cornwall (Andy Cryer), an effervescent Oswald (Jos Vantyler) and a particularly unctuous Edmund (Sean Cernow).

A special mention has to go to the brilliant Fool (Fine Time Fontayne)– “more rogue than fool”, as Goneril (Helen Sheals) brands him – who conjures mirth and dread with songs, prophesies, jibes and the occasional deftly delivered half-rhyme.

A fabulous Fool – Fine Time Fontayne with Rutter's Lear
A fabulous Fool – Fine Time Fontayne with Rutter’s Lear

Whilst much of the play is absorbed in dialogue – often heated – there are also physically dynamic moments here to appease and even appal theatre-goers with a penchant for action.

A slow-motion mace duel between feuding step-brothers Edgar (Jack Wilkinson) and Edmund comes off with surprising success, packing far more tension than your average sword-fight. And for better or worse, the image of Gloucester’s (John Branwell) eyes being gouged out by the flickering of dazzling strobe lights was truly unforgettable.

King Lear is an infamously difficult play for modern theatre-goers, dense with dialogue and built for an audience who may have made wholly different interpretations of a character’s nature – to a Jacobean, Lear could have seemed more sympathetic, Kent more honourable, and Oswald less the misguided anti-hero, more the obsequious villain.

Northern Broadsides’ success in creating an accessible and captivating production in spite of these obstacles is a real triumph.