Henry Crabtree, our Books Editor, reviews Mermaids’ production of ‘King Lear’, noting its inspired staging, astonishing performances and wide array of backstage ability.
There isn’t much to be said after a performance like that. Hannah Ayesha Ritchie’s ‘King Lear’ is a triumph. I will almost certainly run out of superlatives during this review so forgive me any repetition or veering towards being speechless, but this was a truly spectacular student performance. Mermaids has struck gold again, nurturing this group of brilliant female actors, backstage crew, and directorial team culminating in a performance of unerring quality, assurance, and a feat of staging that few manage to muster in staging, arguably, Shakespeare’s most difficult play to bring to life.
The talented group behind the production seemingly has no fear. ‘King Lear’ is notoriously difficult to stage as A. C. Bradley says it is “too huge for the stage”, with its core of actors requiring seamless interaction and great depths of emotion throughout the entire performance – and yet, this talented group of actors did not falter. The wealth of acting skill on display was peerless, and the cast excelled in bringing Shakespeare’s tale of age, family, and ambition to the St. Andrews theatre scene. This particular staging was ingenious in its use of music within the performance, either as light interlude between scenes or as an emotional sucker punch in those moments of effervescent emotion – a huge applause should go to the member(s) of the cast who chose Super Rich Kids, Wolves/Real Friends, and Youth as the music of choice, bringing a contemporary flavour while in keeping with the themes.
Use of costume, too, made for a visually striking performance. It was hard to miss the matching of Cordelia’s dress to Lear’s scarf colour in the opening scene where the former cannot provide her father with the airy, emotionless platitudes he so craves, and that her sisters conjure willingly with scheming glee. The scarf is never seen again, symbolic of her fall from grace in Lear’s eyes – from the favourite to the outcast. Goneril and Regan’s clothes of serpentine green for the majority reflected their venomous natures, and the perpetual circling of characters seen in the performance gave rise to an unnerving feeling of predation and usurpation, in keeping with the play’s central dogma that “for the younger rises when the old doth fall”. The most striking visual effect through costume, however, was reserved for the final act. Lear’s entry, by this point decrepit, maddened and hopeless, brought in by an attendant to see his loving daughter Cordelia while clad in a hospital gown and sat in a wheelchair made an impactful sight.
The sound, light and set of the performance all aided its success in such an insular setting as the 601 stage. Masterfully choreographed movement around the stage and through the audience, as with the aforementioned circling, made for a rendition of ‘King Lear’ without the confusing humdrum of entrances and exits that simply reading the text provides. The music mentioned above was joined by discordant white noise that slowly built up to represent the storm that dominates the middle third of the play, and a mite of eerie piano chords accompanied some of Lear’s descents into madness on the heath. The real feat of sound and lighting, however, came with Gloucester’s blinding. Always difficult to stage, and horrifying for audience and actors alike, the blinding scene was omitted from many performances or hinted at occurring offstage. Here, however, amidst strobe lighting and circling by Goneril and Regan, Gloucester’s blinding and screams pierced the audience, a testament to this play’s capacity to induce horror even more than 400 years later. A fluid and measured staging on a set adorned with merely a throne (for the first half) and a wire tree proved genius – without the copious props and backgrounds a naturalist view of the play might have used. This version of ‘King Lear’ used minimal props, and rested, as it should, on the complexity and raw emotion of the relationships between the characters.
In this play where familial relationships take the fore, there is a colossal requirement for both the highs of love and the doldrums of hate and anger. This performance’s range of actors from all years of university life took the challenge and succeeded triumphantly. While the entire cast was faultless and deserves every plaudit available, this performance’s emphasis on human emotion means I must focus on two specific, narrow groups of characters in particular, though this is not to discredit those not mentioned. We must begin, as is only right, on Annabel Steele’s eponymous Lear. Her marvellous descent from composed ruler dividing their kingdom into hospital gown-clad wreck hoarsely lamenting their final, fatal, loss was every bit as deliberate as it was heartbreaking. An actor portraying Lear always has to be wary to toe the performance line between being too disliked or too pitied. Annabel’s Lear managed the ferocity in anger at Goneril and Regan, and at the Gods for taking away Cordelia alongside the bare, unhinged emotion at losing everything in a manner and poise akin to a professional. Kent, played by Molly Williams, was a striking figure in this production. Where the character can become lost under the domineering role of Lear in the play, Molly Williams’ confident, bullish and steadfast characterisation of the Earl of Kent, whose loyalty to the last was eloquently portrayed in her final lines of the play, that: “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me, I must not say no”.
Lear’s most pleasantly-mannered daughter, Cordelia, was performed with such aplomb by Georgia Luckhurst that it becomes shocking to remember her presence was only in the first and final acts of the play. A confident stage presence, Cordelia like Lear must endure the play’s most bitter emotional turns, and the mannerisms and vocalisation of her character’s anguish and love places her at the heart of the audience’s hopes, and at the centre of our agony, in the denouement of the play. Edgar too, the object of his illegitimate brother’s scheming and his father’s false-founded scorn, was played to perfection by Kate McGregor – the palpable heartbreak of having to masquerade as Poor Tom in front of her wounded father was acted superbly, and the rousing redemptive arc her character undergoes after the pain of being manipulated was illustrated with uplifting joy and relief.
King Lear’s antagonists too were performed with just as much talent and acting nous, however their performances, instead of being marked with harrowing pain, loyalty or redemption, were characterised by their Machiavellian malevolence. This is not a detraction, far from it – these characters were just as intriguing and wonderfully performed, yet in a love-to-hate way. The twin vipers of Goneril (Helena Jacques-Morton) and Regan (Iona Robson) began the play as actors acting as actors, with their vapid lies to their father the first instances of their deceit and scheming. The two had fantastic chemistry as on-stage sisters should, and their descent into gleeful barbs at their usurped father was portrayed with nuance and condescension beyond their years. Both Helena and Iona’s vicious streaks (only in character) could be seen in their initial partnership, moving to fragile alliance and then all-out betrayal of each other, and the descent of their characters in their pursuits of power were characterised by shrewd cunning through incredible talent. Finally, I’d like to mention the part of Edmund, played by Ellie Burke, the character who I felt gripped all attention in her masterful portrait of an illegitimate son turned cunning villain who would stop at nothing. Ellie’s measured, finely-tuned tone and physicality on stage when interacting with other characters reflected the duplicity of her character, in betraying first his brother, then his father, then both Goneril and Regan. To close, Edmund’s light redemption in admitting his orders to slay both Lear and Cordelia in prison was a real turn in Ellie’s part and was portrayed with the same strategic opportunism as his earlier betrayals of those close to him.
To summarise, Mermaids’ performance of ‘King Lear’ was without a doubt the best student production I have had the pleasure to witness thus far – a masterful feat of acting, staging, and composition. I haven’t nearly the adjectives nor the time to thank Hannah Ayesha Ritchie, the cast and crew enough for this production, but it will certainly be one that sticks in the mind for some time.