HER Productions, Unseemly Women & Girl Gang Manchester
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
June 7-18, 2023; 2 hrs 40 mins
(also Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot, June 21-24, 2023)
An all-female, non-binary production of King Lear – a play driven by toxic masculinity and with only three female characters (all demonstrating higher testosterone counts than their husbands) – demands some unpicking, you would have thought.
We have the straightforward reversal of the casting norms of Shakespeare’s day – when all parts were played by men, of course. But then this powerful gender change also opens the way for a very different examination of the complex themes woven through the play: patriarchy and misogyny, morality and loyalty, and love, of course.
Despite some sterling performances Kayleigh Hawkins's production fails to pick up and run with its potential. This is a straightforward interpretation; enjoyable certainly, but unchallenging.
Christine Mackie’s sharp-suited, Hollywood-thin Lear is ferocious and compelling – and if she is supposed to suck the emotional heft out of the other characters, she succeeds only too well. There is a long and honourable tradition of Corrie stars turning their hand to the classics, and Mackie hasn't fallen short.
The play opens a little shakily and with some comedy, which feels awkward. It was appreciated by many in the audience, but undermines the taut relationship between the sisters and leaves Goneril (Gina Fillingham) and Regan (Teddy Oyediran) perilously close to resembling pantomime ugly sisters, a status from which they never really recover.
Cordelia (Ella Heywood), by contrast is played very low-key from the off, somewhat undermining her principled refusal to pander to her father’s petulant demand for a fawning declaration of devotion. These few measured lines on filial love are the pivot on which the entire play turns (and sometimes crashes and burns), and they deserve more attention than they are accorded here.
The opening also introduces an additional player – the mighty boardroom table. The influence of TV’s Succession could not have been clearer. That table both links and divides characters, delivers shelter and death sentences, and like your favourite kitchen version, turns upside down to become a boat. Excellent set design from Sorcha Corcoran.
The table needs to be sturdy; it bears the brunt of a production that is full of energy and has a huge appetite for physicality. The fight scenes (Kaitlin Howard) are convincing, while the body count grows with great gusto. Hopefully it is not too much of a spoiler to say that a stiletto heel finally appears, and lives up to its original derivation.
Hayley Jones’ cheeky Edmund, with his sly winks and asides to the audience, works well, but her transition to the calculating schemer suffers. And interestingly this female/non-binary version highlights the core passivity of the gaggle of dukes (Alice Proctor, Fiona Scott, Adelina Lece-Bere, Emily Heyworth and Amy Du Quesne as Edgar, Gloucester, Kent, Albany and Cornwall respectively), throwing our kneejerk assumptions about masculinity into question.
But it all comes back to Mackie’s Lear. She rages and whines, declaims and trembles, all the while maintaining that relentless descent into madness. Dementia is a terrifying presence in many of our lives today, and this outstanding performance does nothing to calm our nerves about our own potential future.
More info and tickets here