Online Comment editor, Gaia Neiman, reviews Exeter University’s Shakespeare Company’s ‘King Lear’ performed at Exeter Cathedral.
The ‘smell of mortality’ brought about by the ‘late eclipses of the sun and moon’ one may be acquainted with upon seeing the set of a performance of King Lear was not what I encountered as I entered Exeter Cathedral. Having seen a few productions of this play in the past, I was pleasantly surprised with the minimalism with which I was greeted on entrance. This is in fact one of the strongest parts of this play, as among other devices and the general ambiance, it allows EUSC’s production to be an accessible mouthpiece of Shakespeare. Accessible simplicity, together with use of lighting, costume, and staying true to a story for the ages, make for a beautiful revival of a timeless tale.
For people who do not know the play, the most prominent themes that carry this tragedy are illustrated cleverly through the use of costume. It is easy to characterize the social outcasts through darker clothing, and mark the downfall of characters like the King and social promotions of ambitious bastards as they go from light to dark or vice versa, to mark virtue and purity or poverty and obscurity. The theme of vision that is to me the most sacred in this play is clear from the embroidery of a literal eye on the costumes of varying characters. The King’s embroidery commences plainly, to foreshadow his need for other characters to educate him and ensue character growth from a blank canvas. A savvy way of including the theme of nature was also done through costume, or better yet, the lack thereof – as the characters better approach their natural states, clothing layers and shoes are gradually removed.
The entrance into a dark theatre contrasts the set design, thus bringing out the bright white floor to immediately bring attention to our own Britain drawn on the stage. Lighting promises then and there to be a most striking feature in this production, which is marvellous considering the poor resources of a Cathedral. It brings life to the minimalistic stage design and illuminates the beautiful architecture. The lighting goes from warm yellow tones to white to blue, as the darkness of the story progresses, and then reverts back to warmer tones to give a sense of false hope, gifting greater depth to the eventual catharsis. I especially enjoyed the playing with the shadows which came about by the lights crossing the room, another great sense of the ambiguity of the characters. The lighter corner of the stage is where most of the violence took place, so to shed light on the corruption of the court by us inhibited for the evening.
The accessibility of the play truly made it unique. The minimalistic aspect allows symbolism of costume to be made clear, to better identify character virtues. The traverse stage itself allows proximity to the audience, ergo humanizing the characters and almost breaking the fourth wall. A truly innovative face of this play was the take on gender: not constraining the characters to it, such as Gloucester’s children and the fool, was an interesting take I’d never heard of, and allowed fresher insight on a play that has been seen time and time again.
A great play made great by its venue. The atmospheric devices such as using the cathedral doors as a visual metaphor of the king being excluded and semi-exiled in his fast demise (while also making the audience feel the cold of the fictitious storm which is simultaneously taking place) made clever use of the space but made up for unfortunate lacking in sound adequacy. There can’t be an appreciation for full dialogue, as a lot of it escapes due to the vast space, echo and lack of microphone use. The apathy of the tragedy and the main themes for audience understanding of the play’s full depth are however on full display. I therefore recommend this play to anyone who has never seen a version of King Lear as a must see. The minimalism may over display more subtle themes for those who know the play well, but the excellent direction and technology make it worth the watch.