“A man may see how this world goes, with no eyes” – King Lear
Classical theatre has enough of the madness rhetoric imbued into its themes, that Shakespeare’s King Lear stage adaptation need not label itself with that token anymore. Although widely adapted for the stage and film, with the title role coveted by numerous notable names, never has it seen a black man take on the role of Lear.
In the Talawa Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Theatre co-production, Artistic Director Michael Buffong casts Don Warrington as Lear, after his successful ‘All My Sons’ back in 2013, in which Warrington convincingly delivered.
King Lear is about tragedy and the chaos in aging or rather the mixture of both. Lear’s gradual descent into madness, after he disposes of his kingdom giving his inheritance to two of his three daughters based on their flattery of him, brings tragic consequences for all.
The choice of play and casting by Buffong, came after he was nudged to do “something that frightens you”. Buffong courageously throws Warrington into ancient Britain, and manages to reiterate that black people did exist back then – they were just poorly recorded in Britain’s history.
Both language and costumes remain true to the story’s era. Buffong also sets props – swords, engraved metal chalices and thrones – as Shakespeare would have originally had them. To put it into perspective; visually, the audience is transported back to the Stuart era of Britain – the 1600s. The reality is that black people lived and contributed to English society for hundreds of years; only now is this fact being steadily discussed and revealed.
There is comedy in this 3-hour and 15-minute epic; just enough to break-up the intense scenes of Lear’s seemingly lasting sternness. Milos Yerolemou’s captivating performance as the Fool is outstanding. His versatility, humour, sharpness and audible confidence is well juxtaposed with Warrington’s riveting presence and lunacy on stage. Both encapsulate the interplay of madness and power.
The play is also about aging, dementia and the dramatic and debilitating effects of a society hungry for power. Buffong manages to choose a focal point that mirrors modern challenges too – the universality of aging and the worrying that inevitably ensues. The cast is fluid in projecting this.
Rakie Ayola as Goneril accurately sums up Lear’s fall into madness as a king, “his best and soundest years have been but rash”. Whilst the language maintains authenticity to the original story, it sometimes fails in delivering the daughters’ annoyance at their father’s decisions – leaving their facial expressions and body language to fill in the gaps. Rakie and Debbie Korley as Regan appear at ease in their roles but their dialogue seems blocky…again perhaps the language the reason here.
The tragedy which strips us all for us to reflect on our lives, is exactly what Lear ends up with. Warrington commands the stage both as a stern and stubborn kin, and as well as a humbled one whose emotions, morality and virtues exemplify royal qualities. His performance is as close as you can get to perfection in the role.
King Lear is at Royal Exchange Theatre until 7 May, before moving on to Birmingham Repertory theatre from 19 to 28 May.
★★★★ King Lear – Must See theatre.