One of the most anticipated events of the Reading summer is back. Progress Theatre’s open air season has kicked off with a powerful production of King Lear in the Chapter House.
King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most eloquent plays, but it’s often a difficult one to watch, with a bleak, nihilistic tone at the centre. Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies it’s the one I feel focuses most on the gloomy side of life, and that’s really saying something.
We open with a puffed up, imperial King Lear, set in Regency England during the beginning of the imperial century of the British Empire. It’s a smart time period for staging, drawing parallels between the madness of King George, and King Lear.
In a parenting move that would probably have child psychologists biting their nails to the quick, Lear demands his three grown up daughters shower him in praise and proof of their love in return for one of three segments of the empire. The eldest two, Goneril and Regan go overboard with simpering and false professions of love for their father.
The youngest, and favourite, daughter, Cordelia, sees through their nonsense and refuses to take part. She loves her father like a daughter should and she worships her king as any subject would, she doesn’t need payment. Rather than praising her selflessness, the humiliated King Lear cuts Cordelia out of his estate and banishes her from the kingdom.
This leads to a family breakdown of Jeremy Kyle proportions. The elder daughters soon betray and manipulate their elderly father and Lear begins to develop dementia, leading to a breakdown. Pretty soon there’s a war, there’s lots of death and the king’s family, life and kingdom is broken. I did tell you it was gloomy.
Yet despite all that gloom, this production is definitely not dull. Director Dan Clarke has done a strong job of creating an emotional piece of theatre showing the tragic journey that results from Lear’s fateful, selfish decision.
Staging is incredibly bare bones – just stage blocks and a couple of chairs – but when you have the ruins behind you as a skeleton structure little else is needed to bring atmosphere and ancient grandiosity to the stage. Tech is also minimal, with simple, yet effective light and no real sound track – the deep crack of the storm and the rousing beat of war drums all come from the cast themselves.
Barrie Armstrong plays King Lear with both roughness and sympathy. We meet him as an impatient cranky and demanding king, but his imperiousness gives over to a softness as dementia takes hold at the play’s centre. He is left a discarded father without children, an empire, or sanity.
As Lear’s daughters, Stephanie Gunner-Lucas as Goneril and Rebecca Douglas as Regan are icy and manipulative. In contrast, Cordelia, played by Abbey Gillet has an innocent, childlike charm, which also comes through in her doubled up role as the fool.
This casting does lead to confusion at first, given Shakespeare’s love of characters in disguise (see here the loyal Duchess of Kent, played by Kate Shaw, who passes herself off as Caius with only the cunning use of a bonnet), it’s difficult to tell if we’re meant to be watching Cordelia in another guise, or not at first. However Gillet is cheeky and playful as the fool, she brings a light touch and much needed comic relief to the stage to balance out all that grief.
Elsewhere, the house of the Earl of Gloucester is also full of gloom. Kevin Copping ramps up the grinning villainy as the Earl’s bastard son Edmund. He holds our attention throughout the second storyline as he plots to overthrow his legitimate brother Edgar.
Ruaridh Aldington as Edgar, the tricked and cast out heir stands out. His turn as homeless beggar ‘Mad Tom’ while trying to hide from his former family is wild and untamed, yet believable.
The whole cast also do a brilliant job of using the natural acoustics of the stone to carry their verse, with no microphones in the tech kit. It’s a strong achievement that gives the actors voices a clear, yet natural quality helping Shakespeare’s words to echo off the walls.
King Lear may be a challenge of a play, but it’s a challenge worth taking for a powerful night of theatre nestled in the heart of Reading’s historic abbey. Progress Theatre have made impressive use of the ancient space, bringing a tough, tormented production to life with a regal quality. Keep your fingers crossed the rain stays away and go see it while you still can.
King Lear is at the Abbey Ruins until Saturday 20 July. Tickets are £18-23. Buy tickets.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.