On the Rocks Review: King Lear (part of the RSC Open Stages project)

The Byre Theatre, 19 April 2011

Rating: * * * *


Nothing, my lord.’



Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.’


Shakespeare’s famous tale of the ageing king giving up his kingdom to his daughters is somewhat preoccupied with the idea of ‘nothing’. The bard’s witty and fast-paced dialogue is framed by almost no stage directions and the simplest descriptions of setting, meaning that any production company choosing to take on his plays are working from almost nothing but speech. Yet from this Hands in the Air Productions have vividly recreated a decaying and desolate kingdom and a court in which allegiances are as changeable as the weather.

Katy Schurr and Sian Riley’s ambitious and stunning set is the first thing the audience sees as they step into the appropriately cold auditorium. The crumbling remains of a once-grand castle dominate the stage, a staircase winding down from the battlements on one side, and a series of three arches centre-stage intended to represent the three divisions of Lear’s kingdom. Bark chippings laid across the floor of the stage give the set a very British feel, as does the addition of bare twigs-and-chicken-wire trees in the heath scene. Lighting and sound are used to maximum effect in the latter scene, creating a sense of fast-changing skies while howling wind sound effects genuinely made us feel a little colder.

Hannah Boland’s painstaking research into time-appropriate costuming is evident from the production blog, and resulted in a thoroughly well-outfitted cast in credible and often beautiful costumes; Regan and Goneril’s dresses were particularly striking. The combination of set and costume made for a seamless overall visual effect of a pre-Roman Britain which we know little about.

Despite his youth, Sunny Moodie proved himself more than able to carry off the role of the elderly king, and his moments of empathy with Poor Tom and bonding with Mariko Primarolo’s wonderfully southern Fool were particularly touching. Robert Sturrock was memorable as the good-hearted but gullible Edgar, particularly in his conversion to Lear’s faux-mad ‘philosopher’ Poor Tom; the perfect antithesis to Tim Foley’s humorously conniving Edmund, bastard brother of Edgar. Caroline Howitt and Alanya Noquet were excellent as the duo of power-hungry, superficial sisters to Lizzie Stone’s conflicted but ever-loyal Cordelia. Every member of the cast, down to the most minor roles, had their own presence on stage and shone as individual characters, never merely making up the numbers.

There are, in fact, no explicit stage directions for the infamous scene in which Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out by Cornwall and Regan. Director Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie took this challenge in hand to create an unforgettable scene in which momentary violent confusion is suddenly clarified when Harshad Sambamurthy’s Cornwall throws down some unidentifiable substance and stamps on it, while Ben Wallo’s Gloucester screams with bloody eye-sockets.

Cannon-Brownlie’s interpretation of the script is more than worthy of its RSC associations, and she and producer Charlotte Baker make a highly professional team clearly headed for big things in the world of theatre. With its beautiful set and costumes and wonderfully gelled cast and direction, this was a performance to make On the Rocks proud.


Alex Mullarky

Photos by Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie