Here’s the thing. King Lear (Christine Mackie) is old and intends to retire, splitting his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril (Gina Fillingham), Regan (Teddy Oyediran) and Cordelia (Ella Heywood).

He asks his daughters to lay their love on thick before deciding which bit they get. Goneril and Regan do a great job of buttering the king up and get a slice each. Cordelia cannot express her love in words, so she gets nothing but a grand telling-off and a banishment. Cordelia is, of course, the one who truly loves her dad and the other two are full of shit. But the biggest bastard in the play is the one born out of wedlock: Gloucester’s (Fiona Scott) son Edmund (Haylie Jones) who hangs his brother Edgar (Alice Proctor) out to dry and drives him insane. Meanwhile, in Britain today most of the bastards I know are adorable and oftentimes better off. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the audience at Hope Mill‘s press night was filled with bastards.

In among the many erratic, quick fire decisions that happen in Lear, a production by HER Productions, Unseemly Women, and Girl Gang Manchester, there are mountains of deceit and cruelty to climb in each act. It’s quite ludicrous really, like one long conga line of the noblemen and women stabbing each other in the back. By the end (spoiler – Gloucester has his eyes gouged out by Cornwall and Regan in act three), I’m thinking, ‘take my eyes an’ all’. It makes for great theatre, and director Kayleigh Hawkins keeps the cast on a high energy journey to disaster. Mackie as Lear is spellbinding in her journey through grave realisation, exodus and, eventually, mental demise.

As an audience member, it is hard with Shakespeare to study the character in any given moment. Before the advent of the printing press, it would have been re-written constantly to distribute scripts. So, by the time we have the definitive version of the plays, they have had so many, shall we say, unauthorised edits, that every bit of dialogue is like a club sandwich of poetic decoration: metaphor, alliteration, heavy notions of the theme. It’s difficult to see the root of intention. When I watch rather than read Shakespeare, I’m after an emotional depth, a simple truth of intention from the characters. And I found that perfectly with Mackie’s Lear and Scott’s Gloucester. I believed them. To watch them is the magic of words in motion, telling us an age-old story of parenthood and life’s unexpected and often horrific turns.

Scott’s performance, amid all the sound and fury of the piece, is a gentle foolishness. I got the sense of Gloucester’s rank from her, ardent but also infused with the fact that state comes before family in a matter-of-fact way that infuriated me. In her performance she plods along with what is expected and assumed with a sense of fatigue and hopelessness meaning that, when Gloucester is destroyed, it is pitiful.

There is a moment close to the end which Mackie plays with such guttural grief that I filled up with tears. You could hear the audience’s heart breaking. Mackie plays Lear on the cliff of retirement – nothing feels steady from the moment of declaration onwards. Her character swings on an emotional pendulum through hurt, anger and desperation until Lear is finally mentally destroyed, left with nothing. And we see all of this in each step of Mackie’s performance.

By Cathy Crabb

Photos: shayrowanphotography

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Lear is at Hope Mill in Manchester until June 18, 2023. For more information, click here. 

To read Cathy Crabb’s interview with Christine Mackie, click here.