Shakespeare’s King Lear is a bubbling storm that cruelly brews and then rapidly hurls each and every single character into its whirlwind of deceit, pride, questionable loyalty and the baring of one’s soul. So expectations for York Shakespeare Project’s 30th production couldn’t have been any higher and the company do not disappoint.
Thrown into the tangible web of lies, torn affection and a thirst for power, we are invited to attend the ceremonial divison of the Kingdom by Paul French’s Lear. The staging is minimal which allows for some beautifully clean, crisp and accessible storytelling which is often over complicated by lavish sets when it comes to Shakespeare. This refreshing approach really allows the audience to easily follow this treacherous and heartbreaking tragedy, highlighting the beauty of Shakespeare’s text and the clarity of the cast.
The powerful ensemble, cast by director Ben Prusiner, is a force to be reckoned with, each cast member making strong decisions about their role portrayal and place in Lear’s court. There is no such thing as a small role here, high praise must be given to all the cast for embracing the script and committing fully to it’s characterisation and depth.
Despite a strong performance, I did expect a little more vision for the play itself, especially given the repertoire of the York Shakespeare Project over the past years, King Lear being one which really needed to stand out and offer something truly dark and spectacular. Paul French’s Lear is engaging and excels in the second half as he slips into desperate madness, but there wasn’t enough of a gradual descent of his sanity in the first half of the play which didn’t make the character as initially believable as it should be. That said, French does do Lear justice and offers a gentler approach which I haven’t seen before with this role.
I was bewitched throughout the entire play by the stunning performance of Emily Thane’s Emma. Thane uses every part of her body and mind in this role, showing her phenomenal talents as an actor . Her monologues are unbelievably captivating and her ‘pretend’ madness was expertly delivered. As well as Thane, Elizabeth Elsworth’s Kent was truly outstanding. Elsworth holds your attention with every word uttered, and her stage presence is beautifully strong. I would have loved to have seen her as Lear – she more than proved her potential and worth, making Kent a much more prominent character than usually played. Jennie Wogan too, deserves a mention for her cruel and manipulative Regan, oozing energy and malicious lust.
The venue of 41 Monkgate does offer limited sight lines, the newly refurbished theatre space meaning the audience can often miss out on crucial expressions and moments if you aren’t sat in the best seats.
This play carves out some of the most chilling, brave and honest of Shakespeare’s characters and YSP honoured this well, the final image being one I won’t forget with Kent and Emma holding centre stage taking the remaining court forward into peace as a strong and hopeful kingdom. A metaphor for the play itself, again highlighting Thane and Elsworth in all their glory.
You can catch York Shakespeare Project’s King Lear at 41 Monkgate until 10th December.