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KING LEAR – Cockpit Theatre, London.

David-Ryall-as-King-Lear-at-The-CockpitThere are two main paths you can take when staging a classic: honour its roots with a traditional production, or attempt to shed new light on it with a bold, novel interpretation. Darker Purpose Theatre’s King Lear at The Cockpit aims for some kind of middle road and almost immediately runs into trouble.

The stark design – in the main, just four fluttering sheets and a versatile chair and table – suggests path two: a new, creative insight into an oft-staged play, with a low-maintenance production leaving space for meaty readings. However, Lewis Reynolds’ subdued direction and his cast’s brusque performances counteract that, hitting all the necessary beats, but doing so in an almost perfunctory manner. Moments that should be savoured pass by in a flash, and some of the text’s less gripping exchanges seem interminable.

This isn’t a terrible Lear by any means. There are some quiet moments of emotional truth and occasional dark wit, and if this is your first encounter with the play, it tells its story with earnest accuracy. However, those familiar with it will find little here that they don’t already know, and it’s unfortunate to follow Sam Mendes’ stylish National production, which has such a strong, dynamic voice.

Mendes’ version is also blessed with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. Darker Purpose’s Lear is legendary character actor David Ryall, known to long-time theatregoers as a key member of Olivier’s Old Vic Company and the National’s Peter Hall era, more recently for a ‘Harry Potter’ cameo and as Grandad in Outnumbered. Ryall is a charismatic presence and handles the verse with ease, but this is really a part-performance – he refers to the script throughout, as he has some memory problems after a recent course of chemotherapy.

It would be a treat to see his Lear again when he’s at his best; here, it’s sometimes brilliantly incisive, often rather muted. However, like Russell Beale, he shines more in the later madness scenes than as the imperious monarch, helped by his sweet bond with real-life daughter Charlie, who plays Cordelia. Her crisply straightforward, sensible woman subtly shifts into an emotional open child as she reconnects with her frail parent in the dying moments before they lose one another for good.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag, with some odd misfires, particularly Stephen Cristos’s fluttering, foppish Gloucester and Dan MacLane’s cockney cabbie Kent. At the other end of the scale, Nikki Leigh Scott’s Regan advances from catty jibes to real malice in the torture scene, with strong backing from Ian Hallard’s cruel peacock Cornwall, while Ryan Wichert and Dominic Kelly impress with total physical commitment as the Fool and Edgar respectively.

Michael Luke Watson is in danger of drawing unsolicited laughter with his Bond villain soliloquies, struggling to find a credible root cause for Edmund’s actions, but fares better with another layer of acting; his faked goodness is deliciously delivered. However, the decision to stick several conspiratorial scenes in the balcony corners feels overly literal, as does the storm scene’s roaring wind machine.

This isn’t a Lear that will wow, but it certainly gets the job done. Depending on what else is on offer, that may be enough to satisfy viewers.

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Reviewed 11/10/14

By Marianka Swain

Runs until 29th Mar 2014
Cockpit Theatre, London, NW8.

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