King Lear: 2 PLayers / 60 Minutes – Shakespere expanded into the unspoken. (Theatre Review)

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,

when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit

of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our

disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as

if we were villains by necessity; fools by

heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and

treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,

liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of

planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,

by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion

of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish

disposition to the charge of a star!

I have a confession to make – I adore King Lear.  It’s my favourite Shakespeare, being for me by far the most complex of the tragedies, sweeping and universal in its choice of theme, and built on texts before Shakespeare’s time, which for me account for so many of the layers. I fell in love with Cordelia in my teens, the young feminist who refused to play mother to her aging father, absorbing his wrath; Freud’s vision of death, our complete finality represented by her other-worldly wisdom; Shakespeare killing her off despite the outrage he wore for the literary crime at the time. For me the death of Cordelia was almost mystical, a ridiculous world killing its own greatness. I love the battle between enlightenment and mysticism, reason and madness, nature and The Natural and the double-sided conduct of almost every character in the play. King Lear never fails to grip me, I fall into its great exhausting breadth every time.

Ford Maddox Brown's Cordelia at the bedside of Lear. (The expression on the face of The Fool gives me goosebumps every time)

Ford Maddox Brown’s Cordelia at the bedside of Lear. (The expression on the face of The Fool gives me goosebumps every time)

Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides.


I grow, I prosper;

Now, gods, stand up for bastards!


How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

To have a thankless child!

So, you can well understand my excitement when King Lear: 2 players, 60 minutes came to the Old 505 Theatre, with two of our countries most talented and experienced actors carrying the weight of this enormous play. The programs casting humourously reads:

King Lear, Edgar, Edmund – David Ritchie

Narrator and all other parts – Gertraud Ingeborg

These two outstanding actors are directed by Scarlett Ritchie, David’s daughter and the three of them decide to take a traditional oriental approach to the execution of the play, paring it down so that the central theme becomes the relationship between Lear and the Fool and the rest of the play extends itself out from this premise.  As with all great writing well presented, less turns out to be more, and subtleties extend from the fine performances into the uncluttered expanse of the world of King Lear. Ingeborg narrates the complicated plot as the hour races by, using the minimal props to great effect, the tossing of a garment to represent the deaths of Regan and Goneril, a blood soaked blindfold to play Gloucester, the tinkling of bells nestled in the Fools Bowler hat (coxcomb). The standout of the performance is the dance-like speeches between Ritchie as Lear and Ingeborg as The Fool, each the embodiment of all their character is at that moment; Lear the reduced, angry old man filled with unrecognised fear and The Fool, daring, honest, bright and funny.  At this point the play deepens and darkens, despite the lightness the two actors bring to the play.  Their physical age falls away and they are in life’s storm together, gripping and compelling as they toss their words at each other, the fools biting wit cutting deep into the old man’s surfacing fears.


Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest.


I have us’d it, nuncle, ever since thou mad’st thy daughters

thy mother; for when thou gav’st them the rod, and put’st down

thine own breeches,

[Sings] Then they for sudden joy did weep,

And I for sorrow sung,

That such a king should play bo-peep

And go the fools among.

Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to

lie. I would fain learn to lie.


King Lear is famous for some slight incongruities in the plotting, and it is possible that Shakespeare himself, given the use of external sources, might have ruthlessly chopped down his own version of King Lear. One thing is for certain, the play has been adapted, changed, rearranged and moved about through time, making the cutting and culling more of an excercise in thematic concentration rather than some sort of bastardisation of the original (pun intended). King Lear is comfortable with experimentation, despite its weighty plot. In the Harlos Productions version it becomes a lighter intimacy, almost as if Shakespeare’s dear fool wrote the thing himself, and in the hands of Ingeborg’s narration the pair look at times like puppets on strings held by the plays own historical weight. Ritchie’s direction is clean and sharp, twisting and turning the couple into their purpose rather than their roles. This works so well, because Lear is all about who we are under what we see, duplicitous multiples, shadowed mirror reflections, each of us dogged by that which we would hide. Remove the glamour, the royalty, the pomp and splendour and you have a man and his fool battling at the edge of reason, trying to grasp that which has long been transformed by time.

James Barry: King Lear weeping over the dead body of Cordelia.

James Barry: King Lear weeping over the dead body of Cordelia.

Of course, despite the plays lending itself to this creativity, it can’t be done without the wealth of performance experience, knowledge of Lear, skill and passion Harlos Productions are able to bring to the performance. From the delicate and intricate performances of Ingeborg and Ritchie, the clarity of purpose of Scarlett Ritchie, the oriental beauty of Katja Handt and Iris Holstein’s costuming to the evocative lights of Tony Youlden, you have a performance that is far greater than the sum of its parts, and a theatre moment you can immerse into fully.  That was my experience, complete immersion and as I left the theatre a man in the elevator with me, moved to speak to a stranger in hushed tones, said the production was sophisticated and elegant.

I think that says it best.

King Lear is on at the Old 505 Theatre until the 13th of October.

You can grab your tickets here.

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