A strong cast and an atmospheric venue combine to deliver a powerful Lear in south London.

The Asylum chapel

The Asylum chapel

The Asylum chapel in Peckham is an awe-inspiring building dating back to the early 19th century, restored as an arts venue in 2010. With its mighty ceiling, stripped-back stone walls and faded memorial tablets, it makes an intensely atmospheric venue for King Lear.

However the pitiless storm that buffets Lear and his retinue steals inside the unheated chapel on this freezing spring night, chilling the audience and the performers to the bone. And all hail Ludovic Hughes as Edgar, who has to strip off to make his disguise as Tom properly convincing. Never has ‘Poor Tom’s a-cold’ been said with such justification.

So it’s all the more credit to The Malachites theatre company that they have produced such a gripping account of Shakespeare’s failing king and his undutiful daughters.

John McEnery as Lear

John McEnery as Lear

John McEnery creates a furious, outraged Lear whose bitter and unheeded complaints become ever more pitiable as the last dregs of his power and prestige drain away. McEnery’s vocal power and charisma remain strong, but he is clearly struggling with his memory, and refers to a script throughout the play. This is disconcerting at first, but once accepted it becomes a poignant part of the King’s own battle to keep a grip on his sanity, and McEnery makes an intensely moving Lear.

Steely Goneril is admirably played by Claire Dyson, with the chilling hauteur and condescension that justifies all Lear’s fury with ungrateful children.  Her sister, double-dealing Regan, is given a glamorous sheen by Phoebe McBee, while Emma Kirrage makes an angelic Cordelia, whose final reunion with her dazed father is a stirring summary of the filial love at the heart of their relationship.

As Edmund, Nick Finegan has such a bright-eyed face and honest, open manner that it’s scarcely surprising his own father is convinced by his machinations against Edgar, his older and legitimate brother. He could perhaps be a little more lover-like with his enthralled mistresses – after all, to ensnare two princesses is quite a feat – but Finegan makes a subtle and convincing bastard.

David Knight is an excellently sturdy and loyal Kent, and Samuel Clifford’s sweet-voiced Fool brings a steady charm to the King’s side.

One of the strongest performances is from Stephen Connery-Brown as Gloucester, whose honesty and loyalty are rewarded in the most horrible manner. And the first child-father reunion of the play is beautifully played, as his estranged son Edgar persuades him that his ruined life still has a magical value.

The music composed by Deborah Pritchard uses a medieval harp, double bass, mandolin and clarinet, together with an extremely effective, earthy vocal effect known as Joiking, which brings an almost supernatural sense of unease to key scenes.

The bare-boned chapel itself provides the most rugged and impressive set possible, and the company have managed their own costumes, with the courtiers particularly splendid in velvet and furs.

With this gripping Lear, director Benjamin Blyth and the Malachites have continued to build on their impressive reputation for quality productions.

Perfs 4 and 5 March, 7pm. Peckham Asylum, Caroline Gardens Chapel, SE15 2SQ. 0871 220 0260.

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