The Tobacco Factory has proven time and again that great Shakespearean companies exist outside of the Royal Shakespeare Company and London. It has developed a national reputation, and its new production King Lear, directed by Andrew Hilton, uses the intimate space to immerse the audience completely in the story.
Both cast and creative decisions from the opening scene make it clear that this is to be a highly stripped back and bare production of Lear but nonetheless one that allows you to appreciate fully the exceptional performance from John Shrapnel as the flawed protagonist. The telling of the story is done with great skill. The opening scene in which we first learn of Lear's character is presented simply: Lear, his daughters, their husbands (bar Cordelia’s) and a central table. Lear values appearances and aesthetics over the real and the sincere. Shrapnel's Lear is more than used to being pandered to throughout his life, and his every whim has been indulged, resulting in fiery anger when he doesn’t get his way.
Shrapnel is compelling in how he switches suddenly into this fury, and from the beginning the audience is absorbed. The tension only builds from here on in, and, drawn out over a three-hour period, it is not only exhausting for the cast but the audience too.
I adored the presentation of Lear's three daughters, each played with enough individuality to be interesting roles in their own right as Goneril (Julia Hills) and Regan (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) can so often be indistinguishable, so alike are they in their scheming, greed and need for power. Their collaboration as the play develops becomes more and more remarkable in its sinister nature. They become unrecognizable from the girls who fawned on their father's desires in scene one. The coldness with which Regan orders Kent (Simon Armstrong) to the stocks forces the audience to re-evaluate the nature of her character. Incidentally, in comparison, Armstrong's Kent is intensely likeable, providing a much needed titter against the imminent gloom.
A special mention must also go to Jack Whitam's portrayal of Edmund, who similarly lifts the first act, which is so vitally important when Hilton has created such a characteristically stripped back production. He plays on the audience’s need to sympathise and emphasise with a character when all appear so deeply flawed; we understand his need for recognition having previously only been noted for his illegitimacy.
Despite its pureness, Hilton's production is also impressive for its attention to detail. The set changes are like small bursts of choreography and all timed to precision, with a fold of a tablecloth here and a swapping of props there. The costumes visually are very pleasing to the eye but on reflection somewhat extravagant given the other surrounding creative decisions and intimacy of the space. Lear's daughters first sweep onto the stage in luxurious floor-length gowns and are laden with pearls while the men appear equally opulent.
As earlier noted, Lear's descent into further madness is incredibly powerful as he never fully recovers his sanity despite his new found appreciation of Cordelia (Eleanor Yates). The final scene, designed to rip at the heart, left most with tears in their eyes, and the space’s intimacy only heightens this experience because you are more than aware of your fellow viewer. Indeed the climax is so exhaustingly dramatic, one wonders how the cast can perform it night after night - however we should be very glad they do.