In something of a coup, Guildford Shakespeare Company’s leading man for their production of King Lear is none other than Brian Blessed. And with his daughter Rosalind playing Goneril too. The play’s opening this week was a little overshadowed by the actor’s collapse during the final preview performance, but with the redoubtable resilience we have come to expect from this totemic figure (and perhaps unfairly so, he is 78 after all), he continued with the show after a 20 minute break. So three days later, it was with a little trepidation that we took our seats in the Holy Trinity Church in Guildford (cushion recommended!).
But we needn’t have worried, Brian Blessed giving his King Lear was exactly how you’d imagine Brian Blessed giving his King Lear would be. For better and for worse. There’s a real thrill in seeing him throw himself so fully into the cantankerous cruelty and wild abandon that characterises Lear’s breakdown – every howl, headshake and handwring is vastly exaggerated and is so unmistakeably him. But this comes at the loss of much subtlety, if not wailing he’s whispering with inbetween, which ultimately becomes a little exhausting whilst remaining trashily enjoyable. I mean look at the poster, what you want is Brian Blessed doing exactly what Brian Blessed does.
Director Caroline Devlin thus has her work cut out in building a production around him but with some sympathetic casting, does a good job. Rosalind Blessed’s fiercely confident Goneril is well-judged. Whether draping herself over the throne in her father’s absence, striding across the stage in a brassière having had her way with Oswald or Edmund or presumably anyone but her husband, or making said husband – Simon Hepworth’s Albany – recoil from her very touch, she’s a remarkable stage presence. Sarah Gobran’s Regan brings a different kind of malevolence, a conniving wheedling sort that is no less manipulative or eye-poppingly horrific in the satiating of her bloodlust.
There’s also some neat touches from Devlin that resonate strongly. Emily Tucker doubles as Cordelia and The Fool (in a Cabaret-esque get-up) which amplifies the tragedy of both their fates, and James Sobol Kelly’s Gloucester’s love of astrology allows for some of the more elegant design flourishes of the evening from Neil Irish’s design and Declan Randell’s star-flecked lighting. That said, there’s also some less adroit decisions as in the finicky level of scene dressing (who knew Shakespeare needed garden furniture) and the schlocky music which frequently threatens to tip the camp balance into overload.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This King Lear scratched the itch for me and delivered pretty much what I wanted – the opportunity to see Brian Blessed do what he does best, and I am grateful to have been able to see him. That a more interesting production than I expected emerged around him, yet was also stifled by him, brings its own set of issues but it’s a good problem to have. And I’d love to see Cordelia and The Fool doubled again to more fully explore the fascinating dynamic it suggests.