Brilliant touring company Northern Broadsides’ version of King Lear has Jonathan Miller in the director’s chair. Hazel Davis wishes he’d done more with the play’s women – and the company’s ‘for the people’ attitude.
You know the bit with the Nazis in The Sound of Music that you always fast forward? For me that’s the entire first half of King Lear. I’ve seen it a few different times and it’s always the same: as soon as the madness bit kicks in the audience suddenly wakes up and starts listening. I wish I could say it was different this time, but it wasn’t.
Northern Broadsides is a fantastic and innovative Halifax-based touring theatre company specialising in Shakespearean drama in ‘informal’ settings. This isn’t particularly unusual but these dudes have been doing it since before it was cool. What’s more, they perform entirely in northern accents. This bit should have been about as worth mentioning as saying: “can women be funny?” but a pair of stick-up-their-arse bints in the interval have forced my hand.
Thanks to some pre-show shandies I was the first person to get to the loo. As I sat down I heard this: “Yah. I’m just not sure it’s working. Are you?” “No. The Yorkshire accent just doesn’t sound RIGHT.” It was a huge effort not to barge out of the door and beat them over the head with my programme; instead I sat tight and fumed.
Broadsides has been battling this ridiculous preconception that Shakespeare (or indeed, any classical theatre) should be delivered in a nonsensical RP accent for years, despite the fact that we have no idea how Shakespeare spoke. Those who have tried to figure it out have estimated that it would sound like a mix of Irish, Yorkshire and West Country accents.
Most Broadsides regulars wouldn’t even bother to raise this, but I suspect the presence of these particular women had more to do with legendary director Jonathan Miller, who’d rocketed in to lead proceedings.
And it’s with Miller that I have the biggest problem. Here is a company with a knack for rendering the heart and soul of a play accessible ‘to the people’ in their brilliant and unique viaduct setting. The theatre smells a bit damp, the seats are uncomfortable, it’s dark and creepy and that makes it SO much more enjoyable. Often the props and costumes are minimal or improvised and there is onstage music.
But there was none of this with Miller’s King Lear, a production he’s famous for constantly revisiting. The first acts were as formal as they come; everyone was wearing Jacobean costume (zzz) and standing around on a chequered floor.
That’s not to say it wasn’t great – it was. There were some tremendous performances. Jos Vantyler shimmered and glowered as a camp, dastardly Oswald and his death scene was truly gripping. Nevertheless you could tell he was a Miller choice as his winking, flamboyant performance appeared occasionally at odds with the rest of the cast and would have perhaps been more at home in an RSC production (hardly a criticism). Sean Cernow was deliciously nasty as Edmund, the scheming half-brother of Edgar and illegitimate son of poor soon-to-be-blinded Gloucester, issuing sinister threats in a broad Oldham accent that would have been at home in a modern, grim family drama.
The Fool’s speeches are among King Lear’s high points. He’s funny in his unfunniness (like a Jacobean Tommy Cooper), tragically loyal and unflinchingly wise (“May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?”). Unfortunately Fine Time Fontayne’s portrayal was a little more lacklustre than usual and the whip crack lines seemed to disappear into the ether.
But the women. Ah the women. It’s SO hard with Lear. You get those who try and work out WHY Lear’s daughters are so nasty (perhaps the patriarchy wore them down? Wrong: they’re just twats) and then attempt to inject some depth into the performance (it’s Shakespeare: there is no depth). However, if you don’t do this the daughters end up being poorly drawn cardboard characters who stand around issuing threats with no reason or real purpose other than to further the plot. I have never seen a performance that sorts out this issue satisfactorily. Not a single one – and not this one either.
In this production Lear’s daughters stood around grimacing at each other while delivering the (bad) lines chucked at them by Shakespeare. THEN, when poor Gloucester’s eyes were being gouged out by her husband the Duke of Cornwall (Andy Cryer), Nicola Sanderson (as Regan) suddenly turned out the bloodthirsty and orgasmic performance of a lifetime. After that, quick as a flash, she was back to cardboard again.
This is entirely Shakespeare’s fault for forgetting to write the women’s parts in one of his finest plays. Or maybe it’s Miller’s fault for not realising the calibre of the actor he had in his midst. Cordelia (Catherine Kinsella) was like all other Cordelias; doing her best to get her teeth into a role that has no real bite.
Thankfully Barrie Rutter, Broadsides’ founder and resident genius, was a brilliant, compelling and shambling Lear. In the final scene – by which time the company appeared to have been allowed to indulge a little of its improvisatory self – when he said to his beloved daughter: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?” I have to admit I got something in my eye.
King Lear is on tour. It arrives at Hull Truck Theatre tonight.
Visit www.northern-broadsides.co.uk for further details.3442 Views
Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".