The beauty of Shakespeare lies in the fact that you can do with it what you will; cut it, mould it, pull it into the future and, in this case, cross-gender cast to your heart’s content. With acclaimed performances from leading actresses such as Maxine Peake in Hamlet to Glenda Jackson’s upcoming performance in King Lear at the Old Vic, it’s a blessing that the stigma around women in these roles is dissipating.
It’s true; nothing is lost in casting mad King Lear as a woman, as the Union Theatre’s transfer of Queen Lear demonstrates. Ursula Mohan gives a harrowing, heavy performance as the monarch at odds with her mind. A sheer force of nature, she begins assertively, bellowing and booming, until she rapidly descends into a childlike shadow of her former self – which, at times, is slightly too impish and mischievous. But she transitions strikingly, right up to the sparkle in her eyes which disappears almost instantly. It’s an unsettling effect.
Catapulted into the future, Queen Lear holds a lot of potential. The absence of any real set creates an interesting effect; you’re never quite sure what is real and what is not, which places you in the mind of the ill-fated Queen. Instead, you are presented with a barren space and moody music, giving a battle-like atmosphere to the whole piece that keeps you thoroughly engaged.
There are good performances throughout, particularly from Elizabeth Appleby and Rosamund Hine as Regan and Goneril respectively. Both are equally irrational and scheming, although you never quite get the feeling that they are simply out for their mother’s money. Phil Willmott’s decision to have Regan sniffing coke before gouging out the Duke of Gloucester’s eyes is an interesting one – it somehow justifies her irrationality, when in fact Regan’s choices are all coldly calculated. Equally, Ben Kerfoot is satisfyingly slimy as Edmund and you really relish when he gets his comeuppance.
Willmott’s directorial decisions are often what holds Queen Lear back. It’s a shame, because he has a very decent cast on his hands. A grand piano is far too bulky for the tiny space of the Tristan Bates Theatre, and it doesn’t work as a flowing set piece. You wonder what relevance it has to the Shakespeare play. Similarly, the use of a trolley in the great “blow winds blow” speech is such a hindrance that I thought about wheeling it off myself. There’s too much stumbling and moving and not enough informed delivery. Equally, the inclusion of hard drugs seems entirely unnecessary – especially the use of heroin, which Edgar seems to overcome miraculously well.
It’s an interesting piece with a stellar performance at its heart. Perhaps the actors need a slightly larger playing space and a slightly more inventive director, but it’s an enjoyable evening that proves Queen Lear is just as mighty as the King.
Reviewed by Susannah Rose Martin.