Millie Dunne rages against the dying of the light as she attends Lear at Lynton’s Valley Of The Rocks presented by Pleasure Dome Theatre Company.
Open Air Theatre
Valley Of The Rocks, Lynton
King Lear is Shakespeare’s greatest play, yet the plot can be difficult to follow, there aren’t too many laughs and it requires absolute commitment from the actors. So it was with a degree of trepidation that I arrived at the Valley of Rocks on Tuesday to see Pleasure Dome Theatre Company’s LEAR. I needn’t have worried, in fact I could have been as carefree as the goats that meander insouciantly through the bracken. After three years and three productions (Macbeth, The Importance of Being Earnest and Lorna Doone), Director Scott LeCrass and Pleasure Dome have really worked out how to make a performance fly in this unique and uniquely challenging environment.
The key is pace, which prevents the production ever becoming static and ensures there’s always something – whether it’s an extravagant gesture, a decisive movement across stage or a knife fight – to keep the audience engaged. Audibility was not an issue, despite the exposed environment; diction remained crystal clear throughout, not least in the wordier dialogues, thanks to the natural amphitheatre formed by Ragged Jack and Castle Rock. Even the plaintive cries of the wheeling curlews overhead rang out with precision.
The production plays havoc with what you might suppose would be a traditional Shakespearian tragedy. Set far into the future, the production conjures up a dystopian vision where a matriarchy has emerged as the focus of political power in a deconstructed, litter-strewn wasteland. Consequently, any amount of liberties are taken with the genders of the cast. LEAR is a woman, played with all the potency and broken majesty this huge role demands by Judith Rae. As the central figure, Rae is the only actor not to double up on parts – and she revels in the focus this affords her. The descent into madness is artfully paced from the bombast of the map scene, through complete mental disintegration and finally to abject despair in the universally catastrophic finale.
Regan, Goneril and Cordelia are played by boys. Edmund and Edgar are played by girls. Little attempt is made to mimic the opposite sexes, yet the defining identities of the characters come through as strong as ever. The vibe is androgyny, not gender-bending. After all, jealousy, resentment, pride and arrogance are universal human traits, and by no means the province of a single sex.
Ian Pink gives a striking and nuanced performance as Cordelia, unable to offer her ‘father’ the simpering, fawning flattery provided by ‘her’ ‘sisters’, the excellent Tim Blore and Sam Tucker. And hence the tragedy unfolds. To a modern audience, some of the key plot devices may seem a little anachronistic. For example, Edmund, played with verve and brio by the irrepressible Helena Payne, is haunted by his illegitimacy – a ‘bastard’. Yet to contemporary mores, such a situation is unremarkable and pretty much par for the course. Kate Austen’s muscular Edgar bestrides the stage with command and poise. And Neil Keats’ Gloucester is genuinely moving in the key eyeball-gouging scene, and his lonely, blind march to Dover. Helena Northcote, as Kent, provides a rare and welcome warmth and humanity in this overwhelmingly bleak wasteland of human frailty.
Punky costumes by Isobel Pellow enhanced the Shakespeare meets ‘Mad Max’ styling, and Tabitha Silvester Kilroy’s apocalyptic set dressing set the tone for an unapologetically unconventional take on Shakespeare. Kimon Pallikaropoulos’ eerie tribal music added to the atmosphere of disharmony. And Jai Morjaria’s lighting made full use of the stunning surroundings, though no artificial lighting can compare to the last embers of a Valley of Rocks sunset. And despite Judith Rae’s compelling and genuinely affecting performance as the addled monarch, the true star of the show is the fantastic scenery of the Valley of Rocks.
In the fleeting days of an English Summer, you shouldn’t plan ahead too far to go and see it. If the weather looks half-decent, just grab your folding chairs and a blanket, get in the car and go – you can get tickets on the ‘door’. There are few experiences like open air theatre, and Pleasure Dome’s challenging productions at Lynton’s Valley of Rocks have established a uniquely provocative and hugely enjoyable addition to Summer entertainment and culture in the West.
Until 18 August 2018