By Gillie Tunley and Brenda Sandilands.
The prodigiously talented Progress Theatre Company are staging Shakespeare’s King Lear in the atmospheric surrounds of Reading Abbey this month. This harrowing tale of human folly is directed with shimmering insight by Dan Clarke, assisted by Louisa Cowell and Matt Urwin and produced by the inspirational Carole Brown.
The intimate in-the-round staging draws us in as the red-sashed Edmund (a swaggeringly Machiavellian performance by Kevin Copping) saunters on, singing. The court is assembled to a solemn drum-roll as the ageing Lear (a poignant portrayal of extraordinary intensity by Barrie Armstrong) divides his kingdom amongst his daughters – a super synchronised map unrolling moment.
During the ceremony, the two avaricious daughters, Goneril (played with sullen sycophancy by Stephanie Gunner-Lucas) and Regan (a superbly venal portrayal by Rebecca Douglas) flatter their father, whereas poor Cordelia (a heart-rendingly honest performance from Abbey Gillett, who also plays a splendidly stripy Fool) prefers to “love and be silent”. The obdurate Lear furiously banishes her to France, whose King (the stylishly regal Simone Gobber) marries her, declaring her truth to be her dowry.
The steadfast Kent (a solidly sympathetic performance from Kate Shaw, who also moved us with her musical virtuosity later on) is also petulantly dismissed from favour and banished, only to re-appear as the canny servant Caius.
We sense impending doom, as the illegitimate Edmund conspires against his brother Edgar and attempts to displace him (a touchingly true portrayal by Ruaridh Aldington). Their father Gloucester denounces him, forcing him to flee and adopt the disguise of the poor beggar, Mad Tom, aka the Foul Fiend (portrayed with manic relish).
Dissension with both pernicious daughters, “unnatural hags”, drives Lear, maddened with rage, into the heart of a savage storm. We see the flower-garlanded king’s ignominious decline and descent into madness as he prances around, flourishing feathers.
The loyal Gloucester (played with compelling integrity by Jeremy Radburn) offers to rush him to Cordelia, who has landed, but he is horrifyingly blinded by the hypersexual Regan and her husband Cornwall (played with sinister swagger by Matt Tully) for his pains. Bewildered and bloodied, he is tended by Poor Tom; in a most affecting interlude, father eventually recognises his true son.
In a tumultuous denouement of treachery, betrayal and slaughter, the royally demented Lear is finally united with his lifeless daughter, his beloved Cordelia… it is a moment of almost unbearable poignancy.
The Abbey is plunged into darkness to the emotional strains of I Vow to Thee my Country sung by the entire company, candlelit.
This was spellbinding theatre of the most human of tragedies. Don’t miss it.