(First published on PlayShakespeare.com)
The Tobacco Factory is not the kind of location, from the outside, you expect to produce a first class production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. However, if there ever was a time not to judge a book by its cover, this is it. Found on an anonymous street in central Bristol surrounded by modest student accommodation it is hard to believe that moments later I am immersed in the intimate atmosphere of the now hugely popular Tobacco Factory Theatre, where the audiences close proximity to the action means every word becomes loaded with greater emotion and each movement creates greater tension.
Both cast and creative decisions from the very opening scene make it clear that this is going to be a highly stripped back and “bare” production of Lear but nonetheless one that allows you to fully appreciate the exceptional performance from Shrapnel as the flawed protagonist and indeed the rest of the cast which includes not one below par showing.
The telling of the whole story is done with great skill. As a newcomer to watching Lear on the stage I had concerns regarding following the story. but as it was, I was able to relax in the hands of such an experienced cast which can be such a rarity in local Shakespeare productions.
The opening scene in which we first learn of Lear’s character is presented simply: Lear, his daughters, their husbands (bar Cordelia) and a centre table, simplicity which will go on to speak of the clarity the story is told. Lear values appearances and aesthetics over the real and the sincere. Shrapnel’s Lear is one more than used to being pandered to throughout his life and who’s every whim has been indulged, resulting in firey anger when it rarely is not. Shrapnel possesses a switch which, when turned on, demands the audience to sit up in their seat, so absorbed are they commanded to be even in these early stages of his madness. The tension only builds from here and drawn out over a three hour period it is not only exhausting for the cast but the audience too.
I adored the presentation of Lear’s three daughters, each played with enough individuality to be interesting roles in their own right as Goneril (Julia Hills) and Regan (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) can so often be indistinguishable, so alike are they in their scheming, greed and need for power. Their collaboration as the play develops becomes more and more remarkable in its sinister nature. The become unrecognisable to the girls who fawned to their father’s desires in scene one. The coldness with which Regan orders Kent (Simon Armstrong) to the stocks forces the audience to re-evaluate the nature of her character. Incidentally, in comparison, Armstrong’s Kent is intensely likeable, in a first act that threatens must devastation in the second, Kent provides a much needed titter amongst the imminent gloom.
A special mention must also go to Jack Whitam’s portrayal of Edmund who similarly lifts the first act which is so vitally important when Andrew Hilton has created such a characteristically stripped back production. He plays on the audiences need to sympathise and emphasise with a character when all appear so deeply flawed, we understand his need for recognition having previous only previously been noted for his illegitimacy.
Despite it’s pureness, Hilton’s production is also impressive for its attention to detail. The set changes are like small bursts of choreography, with a fold of a tablecloth here and a swapping of props there it is all timed to precision. The costumes visually were very pleasing to the eye but on reflection somewhat extravagant given the other surrounding creative decisions. Lear’s daughters first sweep onto the stage in luxurious floor length gowns and laden with pearls while the men appear similarly opulent.
As earlier inferred, Lear’s descent into further madness is incredibly powerful as he never fully recovers his sanity despite his new found appreciation of Cordelia. (Eleanor Yates) The final scene, designed to rip at the heart, left most with tears in their eyes including myself and emotions heightened when in the round of The Tobacco Factory you are more than aware of your fellow viewer. Indeed the climax is so exhaustingly dramatic, one wonders how the cast can perform it night after night – although we should be very glad they do. 4/5