I had very little idea what to expect from Director Hannah Ritchie’s all-female production of King Lear. It represents her first directing project in St Andrews, and features a cast of proven talent and some new faces. The play is generally considered one of Shakespeare’s finest, but it is also notoriously difficult to stage. It’s very long (uncut it can run as long as four hours), deals with incredibly complex themes, and the role of Lear itself is a challenge even to veteran Shakespearean actors, often seen as the Everest of theatre. With these factors in mind, I was curious to see how well a group of young women could pull this off.
Visually, the production made an immediate impression, with an enormous wire tree reaching from the stage to the ceiling, a red leather throne placed in front, and the seats arranged to create a thrust-style performance space. This space was used effectively throughout the production; too often when the stage is used with the conventional end-on set-up, it feels like there is a gulf between the stage and the performers, distancing us from the emotional impact. This was not the case here, as actors used the whole space, came right to the audience, and the sometimes awkward transitions between using the floor and the raised stage were smoothly handled. The costumes continued the modern, stylised aesthetic; the male characters didn’t wear dresses or skirts, but were not dressed to look overtly masculine. This proved a good decision, as it allowed the characters to simply exist without the distraction of trying to play gender.
In terms of tech, most decisions were fairly effective. Lighting was for the most part white and stark, allowing the focus to remain on the action and contributing to the harsh, unforgiving atmosphere. One notable exception was the strobe lighting as Gloucester’s eyes were gouged out; while dramatic, it did feel a little like the audience had been cheated, as the flashing lights made it very difficult to see what was actually happening. Modern music played during scene transitions throughout, and for an opening movement sequence. The pieces used all went well with the atmosphere of the production, but could be a little clumsy at times; songs ended abruptly for no apparent reason, or played a little too loudly over dialogue. The sound effects for the storm were very effective, but also stopped halfway through the storm sequence, which made it a little confusing when characters continued to refer to the horrible weather.
In terms of the performances, it’s difficult to know what to say about Lear. I applaud Ritchie’s determination to showcase the female acting talent in this town, which so often goes unappreciated because there are simply never enough parts for women. Many members of the cast undoubtedly are very talented; however, this play may not have been the best way to show that off. Performing Shakespeare requires certain skills which actors cannot gain without experience, and the guidance of an experienced director. Unfortunately, this lack of experience showed in the handling of the verse and the conveying of meaning in particularly complex passages. Problems with understanding also occasionally came up as a result of the cuts made to the text. At times more basic issues arose with the acting, such as speaking too quickly, leaving cues hanging, or simply speaking too quietly to be heard. Another problem that persisted throughout the production was the actors’ constant movement. Some paced, while others shuffled endlessly and the production would have benefitted greatly had the actors stayed planted, and from an awareness of when movement is helpful, and when stillness is more effective.
The problem in considering specific performances, is that the production didn’t quite seem to know what it was aiming for. For the most part, the goal seemed to be stylised, with most actors not playing age or gender. However, Hannah Raymond-Cox’s hunch-backed, clearly elderly Gloucester suggested an attempt at a more naturalistic style. This wasn’t a flaw on the actors’ part, but felt like an inconsistency in vision and approach which should have been considered early on in the process. Some performances do warrant particular mention. Annabel Steele as Lear had an incredibly difficult job, and performed admirably. I was least convinced by Lear’s extreme madness, but found Steele’s commanding presence very powerful. Her portrayal of Lear’s grief at the death of his youngest child was the highlight of the performance and genuinely moving. Molly Williams also stood out as Kent, bringing passion, presence and a refreshing up-frontness to the role of the honest servant in a world of schemers and backstabbers. The Fool, played by Jimmy Tyssen Smith, was hugely entertaining to watch, interacting with sock puppets in her mockery of Lear and really capturing the slightly otherworldly nature of the character.
Overall, there was a lot to be commended in this production, and Ritchie clearly had a very strong vision. It was a shame that often issues with the text, or simple directorial or tech problems stood in the way of this ambitious production reaching its full potential. Throughout the performance, there was something that never quite clicked with this Lear that I couldn’t quite identify until reflecting on it. The problem is not that Steele should have been a more convincing aging man, or any other performance more naturalistic. It is in fact, the exact opposite. This was never going to be King Lear as we know it, and so it needed to play that up, to go more stylised, to make more out of its difference from a standard production – to show, essentially, that in seeing a group of young women perform this male-dominated text, you are gaining something, rather than losing it. And for me, although slick, stylish and entertaining, this production just didn’t quite hit that.