Theatre Review: King Lear

Ray Henwood delivers a masterful performance as the eponymous character in Circa's latest production of King Lear.
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Ray Henwood delivers a masterful performance as the eponymous character in Circa's latest production of King Lear.

King Lear

By William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Hurst

Circa Theatre, Wellington, until June 18.

Regarded as one of the greatest in the canon of Shakespearean plays, King Lear, currently playing at Circa Theatre, is a monumental work of epic proportions, operatic almost, and in fact is two stories rolled into one; that of Lear, King of England who misjudges the loyalties of his two daughters and suffers inextricably for this and The Duke of Gloucester who like Lear, is made an outcast by the actions of his sons.

It literally canvasses ever aspect of the human condition and emotion such as love, loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, morality, religion and even the whole meaning of life and contains numerous scenes of violence, murder and mayhem.

And while the setting is all in England, in this production, set during World War II, the many scenes move from indoors to outdoors, with cliff tops during raging storms a major part of the play's climax, adding further challenges to a successful production of the play.

Yet for the most part, Circa's production, directed by Michael Hurst, does achieve this and everything comes together with consummate ease in a simple, but innovatively staged version, designed by Andrew Foster, that nevertheless doesn't distil any of the passion or emotion from the play, portraying in graphic detail the harrowing experiences that Lear, a man "more sinned against than sinning" has to endure.

The actors use the large open space of the set, unencumbered by an array of furniture and props, to great effect, the opening court scene particularly effective in this regard, giving a wonderful sense of the epicness of the piece, while focusing on the lyricism of the dialogue.

Mention must also be made of how modern technology is creatively used for the storm scene.

But it is the actors that bring any play alive and everyone onstage in this production equips themselves with the necessities for giving strong stellar performances. At times though, the passion and emotion of some performances takes over and the clarity of the dialogue is lost.

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In the lead roles are two greats of New Zealand theatre – Ray Henwood as Lear and Ken Blackburn as Gloucester. As Lear, Henwood has all the authoritarian mana of a patriarch expecting to do well by his daughters, but when one doesn't comply with his wishes and the others turn against him, he begins to question his own mortality and thinks he is going mad, Henwood's transition through these stages is masterly, as he becomes almost child-like in the end.

And as Gloucester, Blackburn portrays his self-effacing nature well, unaware of being duped by his bastard son Edmund until it is too late. And Edmund is given a great interpretation by Guy Langford, his opening soliloquy proclaiming that he follows the laws of nature, leaving in no doubt the type of character he is. And as the Fool, Gavin Rutherford gives a delightful performance in trying to assist Lear by commenting on his actions with humorous quips and jibes and lots of physical antics.

All of this makes this Shakespearean tragedy one well worth seeing.

 - Stuff

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