I was tremendously excited to go see BME Shakespeare's production of King Lear – not only because I love Shakespeare, but because the show’s mission to revitalize such a staple of the cannon by integrating ethnic voices and actors is of the utmost importance. I sat for a long time this morning thinking about what I wanted to write. Being BME myself, I truly wanted to adore this production, and I did have a good time watching it – it was fun, energetic, and modern. And yet, it left me somewhat thrown off. 

The difficulty in performing Shakespeare, especially with a BME cast and crew actively seeking to subvert a white classic, lies in leaving intact the essence of the show while infusing it with new elements. There is also the eternal problem of different people wanting Shakespeare done in different ways – more than with any other playwright, the audience-member’s tastes can change the experience of the show completely. I stress this point because this is my reaction to an adaptation that so obviously tries to break away from Shakespearian tradition, and I do not want to undermine that effort in any way.

"I could tell that the directors and the cast had put effort towards reclaiming King Lear"

Much like the ETG staging of Measure for Measure did a few weeks ago, this production was set in the corporate world, with Lear’s kingdom replaced by a company. The set was a sober office space transformed by coloured lights at appropriate times. Pencil skirts and suits replaced gowns and breeches. This was aesthetically pleasing, though I found it jarring that the script was left relatively intact bar the introduction of corporate jargon and titles in place of Shakespeare's courtly ones – it broke the cadence of the show when Chair Lear or the CEO of France were announced. It seemed inappropriate for the directors to have changed Shakespeare's language, especially when it didn't serve any obvious ends.

Throughout the performance, I could tell that the directors and the cast had put effort towards reclaiming King Lear by making the show humorous and full of slapstick. As I left the theatre however, I could not help feeling that in their attempt to free Shakespeare of its traditional chains, they had lost some of the poignance of the text. This production of Lear did not feel tragic – I did not mourn the loss of the characters, or feel the heart-breaking devastation of a father losing his children one by one. I laughed, gasped, and giggled, but King Lear did not leave me with that sense of ruin that I expect from Shakespearian tragedy. 

I think the reason for this is that King Lear was uneven. A good part of the cast was superb, brilliant in meshing their identities with their characters, breathing new life into the text with swagger and delicacy. Kent (Drew Chateau) was marvellous, earnest and headstrong. Edgar (Seth Daood) navigated a challenging part flawlessly, changing accents and manner in seconds, conveying folly, resolution and resignation with nuance and just the right amount of hysteria. Gloucester (Zachary Aw) was devastating and Edmund (Dayo Afolabi) was Machiavellian and subtly brash. Cordelia (Frankie Richards) was sweet and genuine. I want to give a particular mention to Saron Mehari’s Fool, which was executed with cartoon-like cheek and sass, playing off of Lear magnificently and breathing energy into the show whenever she made an appearance. Ali Sabir as Oswald, Goneril’s steward, was equally memorable and hilarious.

"The cast and crew succeeded in going beyond the cannon and infusing the text with fresh life and colour."

Satyajit Amin’s performance as Lear was less consistent. Amin was energetic, loud, and funny – he was at his best in scenes in which his madness produced humorous interactions with other characters, notably Edgar in exile or with the Fool. Yet he fell flat in the play’s most tragic moments, struggling to convey loss and regret. In making Lear pathetic and humorous, he struggled to be convincing when he disinherited each of his daughters or when he lost his temper. He certainly redeemed himself as the show went along, but there was something incomplete about the performance. He struggled to reconcile Lear’s age with the comedy he lent to the character, which was a shame. Additionally, the rowdiness of the ensemble on stage with him often distracted from some of his more serious moments. His performance was good overall, but it seemed at odds with the direction the rest of the cast seemed to have taken. 


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King Lear left me with mixed feelings. Again, I wanted to love it, but the unevenness of the production made that difficult. Hopefully, most of what I have picked up on can be attributed to opening night jitters. I do want to reiterate that, ultimately, this was a fresh production of Shakespeare: the cast and crew succeeded in going beyond the cannon and infusing the text with fresh life and colour. King Lear was contentious, brash, and unapologetic; though it sometimes fell flat, it was a success in its own way.

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