"Shakespeare strange, dark and uncanny"
by Alastair Ball for remotegoat on 27/05/12

Standing in front of me is a ghostly figure of a young woman. She is dressed all in black and a piercing light shines from her forehead that burns the back of my retina. A long pale hand reaches out crawling for my eye sockets. Unnerved I turn away. A man screams and the scene goes dark. When the lights come back out blood is smeared around his eyes and he weeps.

This uncomfortable take on the famous scene in King Lear, during which Cornwall gauges out Gloucester's eyes, is one of the many original ideas Lazarus Theatre company have brought to their production of Shakespeare's tragedy. During the scene each cast member is fitted with a helmet light which are shined into the audience, linking the pain in the viewer's eyes with what Gloucester is experiencing on stage. The temporary blinding on the audience serves another purpose, the perfect cove to apply the blood make up to Gloucester so that when the cast turn away from the audience he is transformed into tortured wreck.

Lazarus Theatre Company has built up a reputation for providing something a little different from the usual bard experience. The most striking aspect of this production was the casting of King Lear as a woman in her thirties. Jennifer Shakesby handles the role of Lear with gravitas and vigour, terrifying the audience with explosive bursts of rage and latter exposing the frailty of the character as she descends into madness. Particularly moving are the closing scenes when Lear appears week and broken and finally devastated on hearing of the death of her daughter.

The rest of the young cast perform their parts well. Louise Beresford and Alice Brown in the roles of Gonerill and Regan respectively are especially captivating in their cold-blooded scheming. Also Gregory Simpson performs the part of Kent with boldness, often putting his whole body into his performance. The only problem is the discrepancy between the age of Lear and her daughters. Theatrical licence aside Shakesby seems hardly old enough to have a daughter in her mid twenties. Clearly Lear in this reality had children early and the idea of Lear as a strong and confident young mother works very well. However, the closeness of their ages contradicts the play's more Freudian tensions and one feels that more could have been done to highlight the age gap and develop the inter-generational drama, which is fundamental to the writing.

What I found to be most engaging about the production was the unusual staging. Performed in the round, the characters not involved in each scene circled the audience constantly and silently like the grim spectre of death hanging over the proceedings. The play also used the cast effectively in several impressive set pieces. Aside form the above-mentioned eye-gouging, the famous heath scene was accomplished using the cast themselves as the land which Lear walks over whilst bemoaning her daughters. The use of cast members as both characters and objects de-humanises the persons involved, leaving Lear (the only always human part) to inhabit a world of animate objects which fluctuate between life and death. The whole cast perform very well as a single unit during these difficult scenes.

Overall I was not left disappointed by Lazarus Theatre Company and their production. The unusual staging was refreshingly interesting and at times genuinely chilling. The cast threw their all into their roles and delivered strong performances. If you like your Shakespeare unusual and uncanny then I can suggest you book quickly.

Other recent reviews by Alastair Ball
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