27 June 2014

Imaginative and intense Lear at the Union Theatre

The reason that I go to so much theatre, especially at the smaller venues, is that it is normally good and sometimes you get to see something as exceptional as this production of Lear.

Not for the first time I had Twitter to thank for seeing it. I had tweeted my disappointment at the National Theatre's King Lear when I got a reply telling me about Lear at the Union Theatre. It was the same play but with a female lead and so the slightly different title.

I had not been to the Union Theatre before but it was easy to find. Luckily I had allowed plenty of time to find it so the horrendous delay due to the temporary closure of Waterloo Station (person on the tracks) was not a significant problem, though it did reduce my evening meal to a takeaway pasty from the station.

At least I had time for a bottle of Becks at the theatre where the box office was conveniently situated in the bar.

As I collected my reusable ticket (I like theatres that do not give out throw-away paper tickets) I was told that the play was in three parts with two breaks and that we would be standing for the first fifteen minutes. I liked the sound of that.

As we entered the small dark space that is Union Theatre we joined a reception of some sort with Lear standing next to the piano which her youngest daughter Cordelia was playing. The other guests were standing around and we joined them.

As the drama opened the cast moved through us and I had to make room for the a couple of times.

At the end of the first scene we retired to the seats that ringed three sides of the performance area in single-file.

The dark space was used imaginatively and the only significant props used were the piano and a desk where the Earl of Gloucester worked.

Incidentally, the usual actor in this role had had an accident just a couple of days before and another member of the cast had had to step up to the role and he had to refer to the script occasionally. We were warned beforehand that this was the case and it is a testament to the quality of the performance that this did not matter in the least. At the curtain call Gloucester got an especially loud reception. It was well deserved.

Clever use was made of lighting too. The most memorable was at the start of the second session where Lear and her Fool were heading for Dover and the only lighting was the electric torches that they each carried.

It was all very intense and dramatic. And then it got even better.

As we entered the theatre for the third and final time we saw that most of the stage was given over to a large table (just as it had been at the National Theatre) and there were seats at it. I was lucky to get on in the middle. The seat next to me was reserved for Regan and she died sitting next to me while her sister, Goneril, sat opposite her delighting in the work of her poison.

A lot of the actioned happened on the table itself and a few people died just in front of me. Theatre does not get much more immersive than that.

A good script and good direction still needs a good cast to make the play work and this cast was excellent. Sadly the Union Theatre's website only lists the cast and does not put names to roles so I will just name a few roles that I especially liked. Edmund, Gloucester's illegitimate son, was brash, confident and nasty as he stepped in to the void created by Lear's insanity and Edgar rose magnificently to undo the tragedy wrought by Edmund.

And Ursula Mohan did what Lear has to do swinging through moods and delusions as first she sparked the tragedy, then railed against it and final succumbed to it.

Following close on the heals of a superb Hamlet, this magnificent production of Lear showed how dramatic and relevant Shakespeare can still be in the right hands. It also showed how imaginative and accomplished small theatres can be.

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