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Shakespeare's Queens/The Madness of King Lear

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on Thursday, 25 October 2012
Shakespeare's Queens/The Madness of King Lear

Until Sat Nov 3rd , Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport St, London, WC2H 7JB

phone Tel: 020 7836 8463, web site http://www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk/

3 stars

This is a double bill of two interesting takes on Shakespeare that have been very successful at the Edinburgh fringe, but which originated with Australian companies. Together they last about 2 hours long.

Shakespeare's Queens is written by Kath Perry and begins with a ghostly afterlife meeting between Elizabeth I (played by Kath Perry) and Mary Queen of Scots (played by Rachel Ferris), to which they summon Shakespeare (played by Patrick Trumper) to act as a referee regarding who was the better queen and which is the better way for a woman to be a queen.

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Fig. 1. Left to Right. Kath Perry (Elizabeth I ), Rachel Ferris  (Mary Queen of Scots) and Patrick Trumper's Shakespeare.

They agree to act out the great queens from Shakespeare’s plays, as a way to explore this question and this becomes what is essentially the opportunity to present a medley performance of Shakespeare’s queens from throughout his work.  Shakespeare will himself play the male parts in his own plays.

It is an interesting historical frame as well as an entertaining one, as these two queens were opposed in more than just terms of religion; Elizabeth I refused to have a consort for fear he would denude her power, while Mary was always keen to have a consort and belived she could only rule through one. The play has as a strap-line She-Wolves and Serpents, which recalls historian Dr Helen Castor’s BBC  series She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens an exploration of the aristocratic women who challenged male power and the assumption that only kings could rule.

If you don’t know Shakespeare’s entire work well, then you may well be surprised how many strong parts for queens he wrote into his plays, though of course as women were not allowed to act on the stage until much later in the seventeenth century, these parts would have been played by boys.  Kath Perry’s Elizabeth I is suitably imperious, mischievous and determined while Rachel Ferris’s Mary Queen of Scots is much more girly and vulnerable, but capable of holding her own against the cousin (Elizabeth I), who had her executed.  Patrick Trumper’s Shakespeare is a rather funny creation and suitably intimidated by finding himself summoned to the present by the two queens.

I was impressed by the range of the performances of  female figures from Shakespeare and the banter between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots which shows this is a play that has bedded in. However I also wondered, if the framing narrative meant that the actors sometimes gave the impression that the queens they played were less than complete characters as after all they were Elizabeth or Mary Queens of Scots playing them. However, there is considerable comedy and some moments of genuine pathos in the production and there is certainly something very intriguing when you see these many queens from Shakespeare isolated and in close-up so to speak. However, I am less sure if the question is ever answered as to what makes a successful queen and perhaps this is part of the point.




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Sarah Fernandez Reyes directs 
The Madness of King Lear which is another eccentric ( in a good way), take on one of Shakespeare’s plays: it attempts to be a rich performance using movement as much as language to explore its topic. In this case Lear and his Fool are consigned to the afterlife where they must revisit the past to try to understand it. They do by acting out key elements of the play and since Lear’s sanity is already lost in this ghostly place, the plot of Lear doesn’t follow the play but rather has the hallucinatory quality of a dream. You probably do have to know the play reasonably well to really enjoy this as it is by its very nature quite a complexly deranged plot: this is a Lear who is like a patent in psychoanalysis trapped in the past and seeking understanding and resolution aided by a shamanic, trickster-like-spirit in the shape of his Fool.


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Leof Kingsford-Smith makes for a distracted, broken King and in general his delivery of lines was good, However, it was occasionally dulled by the musical sound track (by Andrew Kingsford-Smith)  of the production which to my ear occasionally seemed to sometimes be too loud to  add to the proceedings. Lucas R Tsolaklan’s Fool skitters, dances and gambols  around the stage compared to Leof Kingsford-Smith’s relative static walking and the former uses an impressive, slightly unnerving voice to act out Regan, Goneril and Cordelia with a green fan and red feather. Is he Lear’s friend and servant still, is he too been consigned to the afterlife for something he did? 

This points to what to my mind was one of the central problems of the often very watchable production ( apart from the fact it is too frequently too dark to see expressions clearly) ; as it is a reordering of Shakespeare’s original text there is little space to see what is being achieved here in limbo as there is no narrative except by reordering key speeches from the play. Does Lear finally reach understanding and forgiveness that he didn’t do in life in Shakespeare’s original play or is he condemned to a purgatorial revisiting of his scenes of great calamity and madness? I was never very sure; although this is not to argue against the considerable energy and vigour as well as sadness that the two performers bring to the production.


The play’s finish abruptly and poignantly, with Lear’s blinding of his own Fool who repeats the role of Gloucester  and who in turn becomes Cordelia, dead on the ground, as childlike Lear tries to  tickles her into life. In one sense one has to ask whether Lear is child or adult apparent playing with his dead daughter. In the end both are after all ghosts, and the Fool only plays at being Cordelia, and I began to wonder if rather than in purgatory, this play may not have been set in hell?

 
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