Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick

I was excited to see a Kenneth Branagh production at the Garrick Theatre, especially a Shakespearean classic like Romeo and Juliet. The grand circle bar is beautiful, with the balcony outside welcome respite in the warm, and very atmospheric. The theatre seats though are painfully creaky! dotting the performance with the occasional groan from neighbours shifting in their seats.

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Lily James and Richard Madden were billed to play the star crossed lovers, fresh from their fairy tale happy ever after in the recent film version of Cinderella, also directed by Branagh. As well as her turn as peasant girl to princess in beautiful Dior blue, I’d also admired Lily James (previously known as fun-loving affectionate Rose in Downton Abbey) in her leading role as heroine Natasha in the BBC’s War and Peace adaptation. The performance I saw was missing Richard Madden – otherwise known as Game Of Thrones’s Robb Stark – with Freddie Fox filling in and taking on the fated name of Montague.

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Lily James is the absolute highlight for me, she lives the lines – the anguish and excitement of teenage love made real in her breath. There is a humour and touching affection to her Juliet – cartwheeling off stage in opening scenes of delight, and later sneaking a bottle of wine out on to the balcony beneath her nightdress to lament wherefore Romeo be her lover’s name. Admittedly the balcony is stunted in growth, a few baby steps above the ground, but the pair work well with what they have. Comic genius Meera Syal is predictably a treat as the Nurse, taking a shine to the friar (Matthew Hawksley) and carelessly encouraging Juliet to transfer her affections to parent-approved Paris. Derek Jacobi (also plucked from Cinderella – the king) is a lot of fun as garrulous, silver-haired Mercutio, a fan of dancing and a comic highlight. There is a definite effort to get in to the Italian spirit of things (too much at points). Mostly though it feels natural – Mercutio and the others al fresco drinking on a Verona terrace, Lord Capulet (Michael Rouse) sipping on an espresso as he receives the news that his daughter will not marry Paris. In fact James’s scene with Rouse in his white vest, demanding with frightening and aggressive force that she marry Paris, has harrowing power. The music of heartbroken violins is just a little too overwhelmingly loud though at points, like Juliet’s poison scene. As the friar’s poison takes effect James pulls down the bed curtain as she falls, and it swathes her like bridal clothes . Later as she is taken away it’s left on the floor like a ruined veil, her now distraught father carrying his daughter’s quiet body into church.

Fox is soon to appear in Stoppard’s Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory. His Romeo though, feels a bit watery somehow, his passion diluted into something you can take or leave. He is much more convincing as a young teenage boy, pining after Rosalind, than as the serious lover driven to tragedy.

Christopher Oram’s set eliminates any possibility of enjoying the masked revels with no sense of consequence. The merriment of the masked ball is staged amongst the dim columns and yellow stone of the tomb, overcast with the tragic end from the beginning. The light immediately picks out both Romeo and Juliet, as bright angels, and at once it feels like a question of waiting for the tragedy to start. The stage allows no separation from what has come before, so entwined are the tragedies with for example the hushed secret wedding, which happens in a far corner beside one of the columns. It makes me think that whilst Romeo and Juliet is much quoted as the ideal of love, we are rarely if ever allowed to bask in any straightforward sugary romance. Romeo’s proposal of marriage comes via Juliet’s nurse and requires a payoff to gain her ‘recommendation’. The gloomy reminder from the beginning means that somehow you can never fully lose yourself in the lyricism of Shakespeare s love poetry.

“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe

  • Running until Sunday 11 September 2016
  • Approx 3 hours, including 15 minute interval

There is something magical about watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe theatre. You feel very far from the Southbank, falling deep into fairy land after walking through the pretty fairy-lit trees and finding your seat (or standing spot) beneath the white baubles. Open air theatre is perfect for this much performed comedy, the sun slowly setting as the play progresses. There are little anchors to the modern world though – this is far from a complete submersion in otherworldly enchantment. Modern jokes abound, and the fun-loving comedy laid on thick is the glue of this production.  It’s probably not the performance for strict purists. But what the play lacks in sincere, conventionally pretty woodland magic it makes up for with its abundance of mischief, sparkle and spirit.
Emma Rice’s first production as Artistic Director at the Globe is raucous, promiscuous, and bubbling with wild youthful energy and unapologetic naughtiness. Puck’s closing line is spot on – “If we spirits have offended, think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear”. The production does play out like a colourful spectacle of a weird but wonderful day dream. It is bright and brilliant in its Bollywood style dancing and celebration – the post wedding festivities a treat for the senses. Special credit to the choreographers Etta Murfitt and Emma Rice for interspersing the modern dance moves (Beyonce’s ‘if you like it then you should have put a ring on it’ outburst a particular personal highlight).

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In a welcome change to the original Helena becomes Helenus, a tight trouser wearing Hoxtonian in love with Demetrius. Despite Emma Rice’s joking interpolation of the line “why is everybody so obsessed with text” into the play (Rice has directed only one Shakespeare play prior to this one) this choice brings new meaning to Demetrius’s line “I cannot love you”, adding an extra gratifying dimension to his gradual acceptance of his love for Helenus. It also gives new meaning to Hermia being short in comparison (a “dwarf” compared to Helenus’s man height) as well as to Hermia’s relationship with Helenus, her gay best friend.

My favourites though are Anjana Vasan as Hermia – enthusiastically earnest, loveable and funny, and Katy Owen as Puck – with flashing, glittering silver trainers. Puck is the bold and lascivious spirit of the play, tugging groundlings’ hair, kissing, squirting water pistols into the crowd. The four lovers are regularly in the pit area too, making sure that the space and standing audience are very much interacted with. The Rude Mechanicals meanwhile are dressed up as a bunch of Globe stewards and cleaners. They run through safety at the beginning, with attendants on hand to help slick down big view-affecting hair, or over-loud snack munching. The play in the play Pyramus and Thisbe is a hilarious highlight. “Wall” is a collection of brightly stacked cereal boxes, alongside stage shy Rita Quince (Lucy Thackeray), and Bankside Health and Safety officer, Nick Bottom (Ewan Wardrop).

The stage is a wedding cake centrepiece, pulsing with the energy and colour of the performance. Huge white balloons are suspended above the groundlings, Titania descends from the sky, a red neon sign proclaims “rock the ground”, whilst a fireman’s pole on stage sees cast members slide and bounce into centre stage. This may not be the Midsummer Night’s Dream you know, but it is certainly one to revel in before the summer is over.

Brecht in the midst of Brexit. Mack is back in town

At the National Theatre until 1 October 2016

NOMINATED FOR BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL (HAYDN GWYNNE) – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

Rufus Norris directs this revival of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, placing it on the streets of grey modern London. Brexit vote aside, the glorious power of the arts to unite can triumph in the fabricated world of theatre. Here on the Olivier stage German streets can easily morph into English ones, suggesting a shared cultural and artistic European heritage which we as a nation can collectively draw on, adapting and informing our own ongoing creativity. Brecht and all of his learned European friends across the ages are all welcome immigrants for our arts industry, be it for theatre productions, art, film literature, or music. It is more than a shame that those who come over to power our services, our NHS, are not always viewed by everyone in the same positive light. And sadly that is not to say the collaborative heart of the arts can beat on irrelevant of surrounding political madness – its survival will certainly be harder without EU funding and it is an industry reeling like most from the outcome of the vote.

Perhaps given the devastated angry frustration delivered to half the nation by the results of the recent referendum The Threepenny Opera is now even more of a relevant production than when I saw it when it first opened in May. With the backdrop of impoverished 1920s Weimar Germany to drive him Brecht adapted John Gay’s The Beggar Opera into The Threepenny Opera, set to music by Kurt Weill and translated by Elisabeth Hausmann. Here in Rufus Norris’s production the stage is constructed and de-constructed before you, revolving slowly, lights flashing on and off, placards carried round by cast members addressing the audience with stage directions and notice of the interval. These most obviously convey Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. Through this he aimed to provoke a critical perspective, enabling watchers to appreciate the constructed nature of reality both outside the theatre as well as within it. Brecht hoped to mobilise his audience to go off and do something decent to improve the changeable surroundings they live in – perceiving their lives, just like the play they have seen, as a story they can shape. Perhaps we might sit MPs down in front of a bit of Brecht and hope they might leave inspired to show some sense and write us out of unfriendly isolation and into a brighter epilogue. As J K Rowling wrote on her website, both Leave and Remain sides were “telling us stories” about the referendum but the ending, “happy or not”, would be “written by us” (http://www.jkrowling.com/en_GB/#/timeline/on-monsters-villains-and-the-EU-referendum). A poll claims one million people now regret their choice to vote leave, whilst statistics show those communities most dependent on EU funding are in fact the ones to have voted leave, suggesting as a population we could do with being a little more engaged with our social realities.

In this adaptation of The Threepenny Opera Simon Stephens moves from the triumph of his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time to something much darker and less polished, and rather lacking the entrancing magic of Curious Incident. The Threepenny Opera is not for the easily offended, it is lewd in its humour and careless with its language – particularly eloquent in its filthy insults (“f*** off poppet” and “perfumed prat” to remember a couple). The comically satirical portrayal of the type of beggary that gets results is most memorable in my mind, as the beggars gear up for the royal parade under the command of cross-dressing Mr Peachum and Mrs Peachum, clad in skin-tight scarlet. This is a cheap opera, we are assured at the beginning, there are no morals. Vicki Mortimer’s design helps to create a macabre feel, a bizarre and gruesome half-built fairground propped with undead dolls like puppets, dressed with gothy style and red string spooling out of them when things get violent. For me feeling no real emotional attachment to the characters is a strange sensation. Particularly at the end it feels a bit like watching a play-back of action, sometimes in slightly slow motion (the play as a whole could have been shortened down a bit) all calculated, ordered and premeditated. It has the unusual quality of watching a nightmarish circus in a dream, which one has no real investment in except for a general curiosity to find out how things play out, and a fascination for the odd and illicit.

Rory Kinnear is Macheath, not especially menacing, but slick, if a little too well put together. Fresh from As You Like It Rosalie Craig has the edge on him as Polly Peachum, unexpectedly punchy and astute beneath my first impression of her bespectacled naive girlishness. She sensibly opens bank accounts whilst proving her salt more than once with Mack’s boyish band of outlaws. Special mention must also go to George Ikediashi’s opening rendition of ‘Mack the Knife’.

There is something unfinished and too loosely knit about the whole thing which fails to grab me completely, but maybe this is part of its charm. It’s worth a watch but if I had to choose one thing to see at the National this summer it would be The Deep Blue Sea (more on this one soon!)

 

People, Places and Things

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

People, Places and Things is a play about rehab, powerful in its manipulation. As well as being search words on Facebook,  people, places and things are all triggers for recovering addicts – old friends, haunts, pubs, parties, situations and surroundings which all require practice, rehearsal to return to and deal with sober, post therapy.
As an actress Emma is well used to rehearsal. To circles of chairs where people introduce themselves and perform. It seems hard for her to reconcile this familiar scenery with honesty and with truth once she reaches group therapy. As the play opens, she is playing a part in The Seagull. The first name she gives in rehab is that of this character, Nina. The pretence continues even as the alias changes. Is it Nina, Emma, Sarah or Lucy we see?
It is easy to see why Denise Gough won this year’s Olivier Award for Best Actress for this production. She eludes us, pushes us away, deceives us, manipulates us, just like she does to her mother, her group, those who think they grow to know her. I find her simultaneously incredibly frustrating and hypnotising. We reach out to her but she brushes off attempts to connect and engage with well-phrased untruths. She also plays being drunk and disorderly exceptionally well.

Rehab is not a magic first time solution to addiction and Duncan Macmillan’s play conveys this painfully well. In fact the ideal seems to be to get a job at the clinic, acting as a safety net once you are thrown back into the real world and its temptations. Substance abuse is like a romantic relationship for Emma. She is passionate about it. Emma is eloquent on addiction (Gough explains in an interview “I’ve seen people connect their success and personality to some substance” https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/mar/07/denise-gough-people-places-and-things-addiction-interview). Acting gives Emma the same buzz – providing a place where she speaks poetry, words “you would never think to say yourself” (from Romeo and Juliet: “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into little stars… all the world will be in love with night”) A place where all the amazing interesting things happen all at once without the boring parts. And then you go back to your own life. And what is it? How does it compare? Emma played the part of Antigone and her heart broke for her. When her own brother died she claims to have felt nothing.

The cast are consistently outstanding and the quips are quick and clever (“Amen is like pressing send on an email”). Following a stint at the Dorfman Theatre, this co-production from the National Theatre and Headlong moved to the Wyndham’s. It’s last performance was (sadly) yesterday. The play starts like the Wyndham’s is about to have a power cut – the please turn off your mobile phones message distorts, the lights flicker – it seems we are soon about to enter rehab where mobiles aren’t allowed and orange squash and the twelve steps of therapy dominate.

The set is clinical, another of Bunny Christie’s successes (she was responsible for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’s too). As Emma goes cold turkey we see multiple copies of her coming through the walls, through the bed, disturbing and mesmerising. I also like the idea of having audience members sitting on stage – their presence seems to reinforce the idea that it is all a performance, that there is an artifice to what we are watching.

Gough says “The final scene of the play, brutal in its laid-bare honesty, is quite simply the most powerful segment of theatre I’ve seen in years” http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/theatre/denise-gough-interview-i-thought-it-was-all-over-but-it-isn-t-a3194576.html ). I have to agree. There is a line which genuinely draws gasps from the immersed audience, a line which comes from the character Emma seems to seek approval from the most: but Emma, “ drugs and drink are what made you interesting”. There are painful glimpses of honesty which are indeed “brutal”. In the last scene Emma is in her old bedroom with her parents, faced with her past, some of which she genuinely doesn’t seem to remember. Her mum reminds her Emma broke her fingers last time she tried to help her daughter by getting rid of her drugs – “why do you think I don’t play the piano anymore?” We want the whole story but Emma herself only has a fragmented story. She can’t even give us her real name.

To hear that Emma is approaching forty is a shock for me, so childish is her behaviour especially with her parents. There is something strangely ageless about her and throughout the play Emma is a sort of void, a blank space where we glimpse someone who can be witty, clever, manipulative, caring, cruel, confused, vulnerable.  In this final scene we see a sad version of her – hunched in the box room along with the storage boxes, eventually alone, facing a future of people (although she “probably won’t have children now”), places, things, and what?

I’m keen to see whatever Denise Gough turns her talent to next.

Rising star Natasha Barnes in Funny Girl

NOMINATED FOR BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL AND BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL (SHERIDAN SMITH) – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

Until 8 October 2016

Twenty-six year old Natasha Barnes was about to take a job in Waitrose when she was offered a spot on the West End in a small role in Spring Awakenings (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/actors/natasha-barnes-sheridan-told-me-to-make-the-part-my-own/). Now as Sheridan Smith’s understudy she is the new star of the Savoy Theatre’s Funny Girl after Smith was forced to take a leave of absence following the BAFTAs. In spite of the sad circumstances it feels very fitting to see Barnes take to the stage to play Fanny Price. The appreciative standing ovation she deservedly earned with her knockout performance brought tears which Barnes assures us are always very real (“When I see all those people standing up for me at the end of a show, those are tears of absolute shock and joy, and I can’t help but cry them every night” Telegraph interview). Reportedly Smith told Barnes to make the role her own. Surely a daunting task when powerhouse past performers include not just Smith herself but also the legendary Barbara Streisland. Barnes does brilliantly and I’m glad to have seen her in the role, delivering a moving performance and capturing a charismatic vulnerability to Price’s focused determination.

Funny Girl charts Fanny Price’s rise to stardom as a singer, actress and comedian in early 20th century America, tracing her turbulent relationship with professional gambler Nick Arnstein (played by Darius Campbell). Thirteen years after her death in 1951, her life became a musical. Fanny is “funny”, not beautiful, she is unique, creative, witty, powerful, a “freckle in life’s complexion” proving you don’t need purely predictable beauty to be a success on stage. Fanny fights professionally and personally a world which typically shuns unpretty, where funny is foreign for a female performer. Fanny is happy to pay the way for her husband’s career ventures, whilst his reluctance to make her a “partner” suggests he doesn’t buy in to being invested in by his wife, and to seeing them as social equals. Or does his pride just feel stifled, forced into the shadows? Whilst Fanny goes from strength to strength Arnstein doesn’t maintain his own sense of self – travelling round, gambling – “that’s who I am”. The power tightrope of their relationship becomes more and more unstable.

The Savoy Theatre is very lovely, an intimate venue of grandeur restored to its 1929 design with a painted Spring sky ceiling, tucked away next to the hotel. The stage is beautifully set thanks to Michael Pavelka’s design. I particularly liked the set of Price’s dressing room, the delicate illuminated mirror, the abundance of flowers, the dressing screen, all conveying an almost ghostly elegance which is emphasised by the use of the sides of the stage and the profiles of the characters – particularly in a scene towards the end where characters turn like dancers in a music box against the mirrored walls.

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The musical is set at a time when “unmarried” is frankly a slur and the American woman’s dream is to be a happily married Sadie. In this modern reinvention there are tensions between this and the image of a strong independent woman striking out to forge a successful career, which inherently challenges the conventional passive role carved out for women as a beautiful “reflection of a man’s affection”. Brice wittily mocks this in her first performance for Florenz Ziegfeld, where she challenges his authority and does what she thinks is best – for she wants the audience to laugh with her, not at her. It is a roaring success. This attitude extends to her personal life. Does she not listen to the needs of her husband, absorbed in the journey of her own empowerment and assertion of independence? Whilst there is mockery of marriage as complete fulfilment there is also expression of it in sincere form – voiced by Fanny’s family and friends following a successful show (“The only thing that would make me happier would be to dance at your wedding”) and by Fanny herself.

There are two peaks where the famed Don’t Rain On My Parade reaches its emotional crescendo. Firstly in Fanny’s romantic pursuit of the marriage ideal, it is belted out as Fanny chooses to disregard her lover’s suggestion and turn up unannounced to secure her man in marriage. And again it reappears finally at the close of the play – lifting it to a much more optimistic finishing note.  Fanny picks herself up, goes out to face her waiting audience, and so reaches towards her successful career and a re-claiming of her own independence as her comfort. She casts off her dressing gown to reveal a dazzling dress of sparkles, a butterfly reborn? There is a suggestion of new life, possibility, continuation which is encouragingly optimistic in the face of emotional sadness and loss. Having faith in yourself, remembering your own self sufficiency and that success has all been earned by yourself (what did he ever give you?) seems the primary message, and it is a pleasing one.

 

Florian Zeller’s hat trick of exceptional plays – The Father, The Mother, and now The Truth (just transferred to the West End)

NOMINATED FOR BEST NEW COMEDY – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

Seeing Florian Zeller’s The Truth UK premiere at the delectably named Menier Chocolate Factory has to be a theatre highlight of 2016 for me. What’s not to love about a theatre which used to be a chocolate factory? It recently premiered Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl, now on the West End. In fact it’s just been announced The Truth will also be showing at The Wyndham’s for a 10 week run.

Menier Chocolate Factory is only five minutes from London Bridge. You walk through the restaurant and descend to the theatre box office and cafe/bar, selling gin and tonic ice cream… The theatre seats are long comfy benches with plenty of leg room. We settled down with our glasses of prosecco included in the ticket price expecting a treat, and weren’t disappointed.

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The audience was generally on the mature side: a lady next to me nudging her partner with a chuckle at particularly hilarious lines, whilst a lady in front couldn’t contain her continual chortles. The laughing generally was loud and happy. Unsurprisingly Zeller does not-so-straightforward comedy just as brilliantly as the harrowing yet witty complexities of The Father and The Mother. It was by no means a straightforward play, of course, bearing Zeller’s now familiar signature of clever repetition and unstable meaning. Naming the play “The Truth” when in all of Zeller’s pieces you grapple with the words and wonder if they are true or false, real or imagined, was a joke in itself. The actors mock it throughout: “The truth is something philosophers can’t even find…”

Here it morphs and muddles between the lives of two couples. Michele (Alexander Hanson)  is having an affair with his best friend’s wife Alice (Frances O’Connor). He seems a master in deceit – a manipulative, skilful fabricator of untruths, twisting things cleverly to his advantage. Or at least, that is what he very obviously tries to do. It gradually transpires that Michele is in fact far from in control of the situation. Does he in fact have any idea what is actually going on?

In a memorable line he wheedles that if couples told the truth to each other all of the time, there would be none left and it would pretty much be the end of civilisation. Secretly, this reminds me of a recent episode of Made In Chelsea (no judgement please) where blonde Sam, caught in an untruth, insists to seemingly staunchly honest Lucy that all couples tell white lies to each other and it’s perfectly normal. (Spoiler alert, it turns out a few episodes later that his own girlfriend lied to him, and he is less than pleased about it.) If lying is motivated out of a desire to be kind and spare someone’s feelings, is it fine and morally acceptable? Or should there be truth telling at all times? Michele hilariously promises to his wife Laurence (Tanya Franks) to be a “better liar” – as apparently the best way forward is to construct a more believable web of deceit for everyone to get tangled in. Solid Paul (Robert Portal) seems initially a figure of pity who Michele deliberately loses to at tennis, despite being the better tennis player. Or so he believes. It turns out two can play at that game.

The Truth is beautifully neat and unravels layers of seemingly simple shattering deceit, running 90 minutes straight without interval. All the players wear masks of exceptional poker faces, the set is minimalist – the anonymous hotel room they escape to for a weekend away “looks exactly the same” as the one they have left. The identical hotel rooms, the display of marriage, of best friendship, a successful career or nose-diving from Financial Director into unemployment, are all blank surfaces for the intricacies of untruths. Despite Michele’s appreciation of fibbery, it seems to be on the receiving end of any kind of duplicity still hurts. Outrageous. Unforgivable? Perhaps not when all involved could be mirrors of each other, dancers swapping partners… Whether they will finish in the same places is probably something I should let you find out for yourselves.

King Lear. Guess how much I love you? A dangerous game

  • Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester
  • Now at Birmingham Repertory theatre until 28th May
  • Directed by Michael Buffong

Don Warrington is a stately and commanding King Lear. He has the gravelly voice of a king which is reminiscent of Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore tones. The impressiveness of Warrington’s stage presence is teamed with a confused childishness. The play opens with Lear demanding each of his three daughters to articulate how much they each love him, in order to determine the portion of his kingdom they will receive. It is a painful sort of childishness, and seeing a comical, youthful Don Warrington afterwards in a Rising Damp video it is hard to reconcile the two faces. Shakespeare’s scene feels like a rather more sinister version of the children’s book Guess How Much I Love You?, where Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare affectionately try to gesture towards how much they love each other (“I love you to the moon, and back”). They reach towards the infinite and inexpressible in their efforts to embody an emotion which can feel unconditional, limitless – and so can never really be expressed fully using the finite source of language, or contained completely within the realms of words. These hares may well be more clued up on love than Lear is. Of course, Lear’s demands are entirely one way. Surely giving a kingdom is enough in return.

Cordelia’s response, I love you as a child should, shows a distaste for a performance in courtly rhetoric for reward and self gain – the promise of property and wealth. Her refusal to give a self-interested pitch is in itself an expression of selfless daughterly devotion but meets only with disgrace and disownment from her father. Pepter Lunkuse’s performance brings me fresh respect for the strong female character Cordelia. She refuses to gratify her father’s vanity (“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”), respectfully declines Burgundy’s regrets over refusing her (“that respect and fortunes are his love, I shall not be his wife”). And later leads an army to her father’s defence. One of my favourite lines in the play comes from Cordelia: “If for I want that glib and oily art to speak and purpose not – since what I well intend, I’ll do ‘t before I speak”. How do you convey this virtue of honest silence in a performance? Conveying the strength of this character in a form which is of course dependant on the spoken word is pretty special to see. The proof is in the action rather than the word. Cordelia’s words make me wonder how we measure performance and merit in the modern world – is it too much based on how well we express ourselves, in interviews, in meetings, in interaction with our peers? What about what we actually do? Is this the best way of recognising value, in oneself and in others?

Cordelia steps graciously down from the raised stage where the three chairs stand, whilst Lear throws his crown down on to the map of his realm and the two slippery Dukes kneel before him in feigned obedience. Lear has just thrown away his power and security and even his Fool can see it – he is like a snail giving away his shell and being left with just his horns without a case. Lear is unanchored, disconnected from himself and seems to have cast aside those who truly care for him and deserve to be held dear – Cordelia and his faithful servant the Earl of Kent  – who in fact never truly leaves, staying in disguise (Lear seemingly utterly fooled by a mere hood over the face) whilst Cordelia returns from France with an army upon hearing her father is in danger.

The unreliability of these linguistic tokens  is clear not just from this opening scene and its consequences, but also from the storyline of Edmund (Fraser Ayres) and Edgar (Alfred Enoch, from Harry Potter). This manipulation begins as Edmund waves around a letter, apparently from his brother, plotting the murder of their father Gloucester (“if it be nothing I won’t need spectacles to read it”). The later eye gauging scene is suitably gruesome, with squeamish audience members hiding their faces as an eye ball is ceremoniously thrown off stage, splatting in a wobbly white smear on the floor.

Miltos Yerolemou (from The Danish Girl) is adorable as the Fool, gambolling round with a painted white face throwing out gems of wisdom. The line that he is dead is easily missed, not as dramatically satisfying perhaps as Edmund’s demise, which is dismissed as a mere “trifle” in the tragic midst of royal deaths at the end of the play. Lear’s howl of “How” filling the theatre gives me shivers, his mourning over his youngest daughter’s body is awful to watch.

If I had a complaint it would be only that the Royal Exchange’s theatre space on this occasion was incredibly, snooze-inducingly warm! – probably not a result of the candlelight and atmospheric burning sconces, but possibly the stage lights heating up above? In any case, it somewhat changed my reaction to the scene where Lear is soaked in the storm (a triumph of lighting, sound and music) – which left me dreaming instead that a little cold water would in fact be very refreshingly welcome.

Since Lear dramatises the failure of leadership and collapse of single united kingly power and control, it is interesting that the tragedy is proving such a popular play to perform in this the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death. Maybe there is a political statement in there somewhere. No doubt it will continue with the performance of Lear by Glenda Jackson (a quarter of a century after she left acting for politics), which is scheduled for later this year at the Old Vic.