What if King Lear were a woman? One of the most fascinating aspects of Phil WIllmott’s version of Lear for the Union Theatre is the collection of responses, collated here in the programme, he received when posting this question on Facebook. It lays bare much about our theatrical culture and it speaks volumes that it has taken a fringe venue to make the move of making Lear a queen. Here Ursula Mohan steps into this most iconic of Shakespearean roles, in what proves to be a fascinating piece of theatre.
An ambivalence of tone in the opening section suggests any number of interpretations might be at play in this modern day adaptation – manila folders suggest the division of a business empire rather than a kingdom, the fool’s green scrubs and readiness with a bottle of pills hints at institutionalisation, only the ever-present handbag feels like a determined (if cheeky) nod to regality. And this ambiguity gains real strength in the madness on the heath with its people sleeping rough under cardboard, shopping trollies full of junk being pushed around – the production feels powerful in this non-specific but definitely contemporary milieu.
That’s not to say that it loses that impact as it becomes clearer that it is indeed a kingdom at stake and that war means war. Willmott keeps a marvellous pace to his edited version here which may have lost the promenade aspect of its opening sections but this simply allows Phil Lindley’s remarkably spacious design to really breathe – Josh Phard’s lighting making particularly great use of the room in the second segment to allow for highly effective jump cuts. And the transformation of the room into the war cabinet, complete with large table around which the audience sits, for the final act is a masterstroke, as the action flows both around and atop, it Is hard to imagine Shakespeare any more intimate.
Does it make a difference that Lear is a woman? Well it certainly throws a difference perspective on the familial interactions – there’s something harsh in hearing a mother’s wrath turn on each of her daughters with such venom and conversely there’s something more moving in the mental frailty she displays, especially with the haunting self-awareness that Mohan expertly plays. A neat stroke is that Claire Jeater’s Goneril is often seen cleaning vigorously, the suggestion of OCD tendencies showing that the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Whether intentionally or through the prism of my viewing though, the tragedy does transmute into something more intimate, domestic even, than earth-shattering.
Elsewhere there’s a fine trio of performances from Richard Derrington’s infinitely compassionate Gloucester, Tom McCarron’s earnestly well-toned Edgar and Rikki Lawton’s wickedly seductive Edmund. Lawton’s conspiratorial glint is perfect for seducing us the audience into forgiving even his most dastardly of deeds and I loved the intensity that McCarron’s brought to the wronged heir, his opiate-led descent into Poor Tom territory horrifically compelling. It is an adaptation that purists may struggle with – some roles are trimmed right down (the Fool), others cut completely (Kent) but the edits always feel justified, determined to tell the story of this particular Lear rather than the ones we hold in our heads.