It was with some trepidation that I entered the uninspiring YMCA Building to see Act One’s production of King Lear. I must admit I am not in the habit of enjoying Shakespearean drama. After a number of enforced trips to The Globe to see various forgettable Shakespearean productions that dragged by in a mix of chill and discomfort I was beginning to think that the Bard’s work would never captivate me. That was until I saw this production.
Directed by Act One notables Piers Horner and Maddison Fowler, the production was a veritable feast. From the time we entered the auditorium to the time we left it was virtually impossible to keep my eyes from the stage. Somehow they managed to create a play of epic proportions and quality within a restricted and rundown theatre space and on a tight budget.
I think Shakespeare can often be approached with apprehension by directors. However, this production was clearly tackled with levels of bravery uncommon amongst amateurs at the helm of such an epic Shakespearean play. The line between modernisation and interpretation was well drawn. The text remained the same but the way in which the action occurred was clearly lovingly agonised over. From the near perfect fight scenes to those of madness which left the audience in palpable emotional turmoil, the art of sensitive interpretation was evident throughout. The end product was not a clichéd pastiche of exhausted Shakespearean am dram but a wholly enlivened production of which the text had been reinvigorated through sheer artistic vision and creative mastery.
Of the project the directors said: ‘When we started… there were loads of things we wanted to achieve, and we’re just really happy that all the different elements of the play, from set, music and lighting through to fight choreography and strong characterisation worked so well together. The whole thing was massively ambitious for a student production, so we’re really happy it came off. Our cast have been exceptional.’
Of particular note was the synthesis of music and action. An excellent mix of instrumental music laden with loud symbol clashes and drum beats heightened tension at key moments and complimented the action on stage perfectly. The directors said, “we had an awesome soundtrack from Nick Cotton and got in professional fight choreographers to work on our fight sequences,” it was these aspects of the play that elevated the production from exceptionally good to sublime.
The cast of the play were also excellently chosen. It was refreshing to see a mixture of old and new faces rather than a regurgitation of the well-known (though highly regarded) Act One portfolio. This once again illustrated the bravery on behalf of the directors to experiment with the unknown. They said, ‘many of them were new to Act One and they showed a huge level of dedication to their roles. That really paid off…much of the detailed acting, which made the action far more absorbing, was stuff they had come up with themselves. We pretty much only had to place them and give them characters – they came up with the rest.’
The cast all exhibited what must have been the result of three short months of extreme dedication but of particular note were the performances of Segolene Scheuer, who played Goneril and managed to pull off the dominatrix twist to her character with unnerving ease and conviction. Oliver Fernman was also impressive and I found his madness on the moor to be hugely captivating and haunting. Likewise, Ellie Hepworth, who played the fool with the most beautiful levels of characterisation and understanding of the role, her performance complimenting others without overshadowing them. Finally, James Davies’ interpretation has been largely talked about and was highly impressive, he led the play excellently and with great strength, although not the ‘show-stopping’ performance campus mutterings had suggested.
The directors finally added: ‘The timescale was short, so it’s been a real team effort to get everything in place. Lear met and exceeded our expectations, but that could never have happened without the team we had around us.’
I must therefore conclude that the performance was an absolute triumph and has discredited my long-held belief that Shakespeare was just not for me. The prevailing success of this piece was its ability to make the language speak with more clarity and power in the 21st Century than any other Shakespearean production I have seen. It goes to show that amateur dramatics can surpass professional productions and that it’s not necessary to trek to the Globe or Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Shakespeare at its best.