This isn’t at all the show I was expecting, as I took my seat in the Warren. The blurb says it’s a one-man King Lear, told from the perspective of the Fool; and on a purely factual level, that statement is perfectly true. But it’s not so much a performance of Lear as it is a study guide; it’s a plot summary, illustrated by selected scenes, with often-ironic commentary thrown in. And performer Paul Morel delivers the whole thing with easy-going craic, as though it’s a tall tale he’s telling one night down the pub.
The surprise took a while to adjust to, but once I’d settled into the rhythm I came to embrace the approach. Let’s be honest, some bits of the story are confusing: why are there brothers called Edmund and Edgar? Couldn’t Will have chosen more distinctive names? Being a Fool, our narrator has licence to make mischief with such things, and to call out some of the less credible twists in Shakespeare’s plot. It’s light of foot, light of heart - and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it.
Morel’s Fool engages directly with the audience, deftly incorporating their reactions into his performance. He has a sparse set of props but uses them wisely, hitting a high note of physical comedy when he entangles himself in a chair; the climatic battle is witty and satisfying, and the storm on the heath is evocative too. The addition of songs didn’t entirely win me over but, well, in such a varied performance it would be churlish to expect to love every detail.
The show’s not entirely devoid of iambic pentameter, as Morel does step into character to act out brief extracts from the original text. Again, since the Fool’s telling the story, the characters are seen through a distorting lens: most are comedy stereotypes, like the priggish Albany or the camply oily Oswald. A handful of scenes are played seriously, and Morel can turn in an affecting performance when he chooses to... it’s just that he doesn’t choose to very often.
And there, of course, is the rub. King Lear is widely seen as the greatest tragedy written in the English language, yet the core of it - the suffering and the folly - can’t possibly survive such a rumbustious adaptation. We get the flesh and bones of Shakespeare’s plot, but not the marrow.
But there are other productions to give you that. This is what it is: an accessible gallop through the essentials of King Lear, delivered with a knowing wink and a roguish glint in the eye. On the day I saw it, the front row was filled by a class of students studying the text for an exam, and it’s hard to think of a more engaging introduction to Shakespeare’s narrative. So, it might not be the show I thought it would be… but I’m really not complaining.