Gravel: Coarse. Hard. Unforgiving. It is rough, like Lear’s pride is rough, like the storm blasted heath is rough, but it is fine material upon which to stage Shakespeare’s great tragedy and director Guy De Lancey makes good use of it.
It covers the floor of the Intimate Theatre on UCT’s Hiddingh Campus, rasping against the actors’ boots, the sound and dust pushing the senses toward a madness in sympathy with Lear’s. It is a stroke of design genius. Simple and incredibly effective, especially in conjunction with the dark and bruised lighting, the smoke that hangs around the edges and the ragged dirt-streaked formal wear the actors perform in, suggestive of a blended goth-punk sensibility.
The lighting and design of this production by the deservedly award-winning The Mechanicals tunes into the frequency of the manic, depressive paranoiac, amplifying the sense of inevitable tragedy, the futile rage against the unalterable march of events that Lear’s folly set in motion.
Yet it would all come to nought were it not for the cast being able to turn the moon to blood (figuratively of course). Graham Weir as the proud king maddened by his folly and misfortune is the cornerstone upon which the play rests and he bears the weight with worrying aptitude. If one ever wondered whether Weir was a bit touched, his performance here confirms it. Grief-stricken madness becomes him. The steam-punk aspect of the Fool, played by Nicholas Pauling, fits seamlessly into the set and setting, and one simply wants to run a dagger through the officious wanker that is Darren Arraujo’s Duke of Cornwall. Which is exactly what one should feel toward such a pompous villian.
The flattering dishonest daughters Goneril and Regan played by Juliana Venter and Emily Child are the epitome of offhanded cruelty, Venter is superbly sullen, Child cool and condescending. Jeroen Kranenburg as the loyal but deceived Gloucester who’s fate follows a path similar to Lear’s would likely be more than competent as Lear should Weir wander too far up his character’s path.
Yet do not be fooled, while the design, direction and acting in this production are superb, making it the best staging of Shakespeare I have yet seen despite the rasping gravel occasionally drowning out the more soft-spoken dialogue, it is not a picnic in the park. This independent troupe is hardcore. They display a no-holds-barred approach to their craft and are uncompromisingly true to the letter and spirit of the text. When last did you see such a scene set that someone getting their penis slapped makes perfectly acceptable sense?
It is not popular entertainment – the very concept could well spark revolt among the troupe – it is disturbing, and riveting, as the best of any art form usually is. The subtitle on The Mechanicals’ poster is ‘This Time it Hurts’. It is not a trite catch phrase, it’s the truth, except they left two words off the end: ‘so good’. — Steve Kretzmann
King Lear plays at The Intimate Theatre until May 5. Call 021 480 7129 to book or email firstname.lastname@example.org