A wild and raunchy production of King Lear at The Theatre Royal Bath

David Haig as Lear, embracing the storm

Propelled by the almost sudden madness of its protagonist, The Theatre Royal Bath’s production of King Lear is unafraid by the goriness of retributions and the sexual drives of its characters, in Shakespeare’s tale of familial betrayal and explorations of the mind’s frailty and fragility.

David Haig as Lear, embracing the storm
David Haig as Lear, embracing the storm

Lucy Bailey, who has recently directed two of the Bard’s plays at the RSC: The Taming of the Shrew, set on a giant bed; and The Winter’s Tale, in which the backdrop projection of a tsunami-bear was used to get around that infamous stage direction ‘Exit pursued by a bear.’ Here at The Theatre Royal, Bath, projection again comes into the fore in a sixties gangland setting, with a design by William Dudley that in some aspects is ingenious, but fails to a much greater degree.

Firstly, there are two translucent backdrops placed equidistant on the stage. These were used fantastically to adjust the scene from a swish pub, where the play opened, to the climatic storm. Each backdrop had a large door-like cut-out in the middle. From the centre of the stalls I am certain this set up would have worked fantastically, giving a clear view through the two gaps with each backdrop aligning perfectly. However, from any seats above the stalls, the backdrops were too small for the space with too much of the stage left unused at the sides where the wings would usually be. I’m all too happy to see the workings of the theatre, the stage hands, the props coming on, all those small allusions to Brechtian theatrics that have become engrained in productions today. But where there is more space to use and where, as here, the too-small hanging backdrops become overtly visible in themselves, rather than as primarily clever backdrops for projection, the design details seem flawed. Especially in the Circle, sat to one side, the gaps did not match up to provide a clear view. This didn’t produce any problems with the blocking, naturally the production was much too professional for that, simply the design appeared imperfect, prioritising the more expensive seats with an obviously better sight line.

The era was a medley of fifties gem-coloured frocks, light-red, leather armchairs and a sixties bubble chair; a confusing mixture. The gem colours of Gonerall and Regan’s tailored cocktail dresses, in which they opened the play, with sparkling diamond accessories, worked well as a symbolic contrast with Cordelia, exemplifying their observance of social codes and practices epitomised in their wordy flattery. Cordelia’s simple honesty, decreed in her first speech, is symbolised in her light-wash skinny jeans and a plain, cream, sleeveless role neck. Unfortunately, the puce and emerald coloured dresses of the two older sisters rang horribly against the pale, brick-red armchairs. I can’t understand the lack of coherency in the colour palette of the design. The design is an art and for it to be beautifully aesthetic there should be at least some show of cohesion between set, props and costume.

Design qualms aside, David Haig is splendid as King Lear. He is fearful in his treatment of Cordelia, roughly chucking her about, prompting audience gasps, and their reconciliation is touchingly bittersweet. But Edmund (Samuel Edward-Cook) steals the show as an edgy street character who we first see getting some rear-end action in a telephone box and who actually is presented very sympathetically, despite his truant ways. He plays for the love of both Regan and Goneril, with some steamy armchair action. Judging by the frequent asides to the audience, we feel closest to Edmund, his status as an underdog and Edward-Cook with wide-eyed appeal draws us alongside his plans.

Aislín McGuckin as Goneril, has a supremely irritating, nasal voice, which in spite of its annoying tone, carries well and enforces our sympathies with Cordelia. Regan (Fiona Glascott) and Goneril were dressed to match, quite a pair, both hooking up with Edmund. Regan has scenes of passion paired with violence that she takes almost orgasmic pleasure in, indicative of the play as a whole with gore and sex in abundance, which certainly wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes.

Originally published by The Student Journals, where I am the Theatre Correspondent.