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Review: King Lear @ Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford

Why don’t they stage more Shakespeare in bookshops? It is – forgive me – a novel idea, but it is also one that really resonates with the Bard’s unparalleled mastery of the English language. Sitting in a darkened room, surrounded by row upon row of whispering books, with Shakespeare’s verse slaloming through the air, one is – without wishing to sound like the detestable headmaster in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys – deeply immersed in that wonderful world of words.

Oxford-based Creation Theatre have been bringing stories to life in unusual places for two decades, and recently signed a deal with Blackwell’s Bookshop to stage theatre there for the next six-years. They last converted the shop’s downstairs Norrington Room – the largest book-selling room in the world – into a performance space with Jekyll and Hyde in 2013. This spring, they have taken the first step of their six-year journey with a superhuman undertaking: King Lear, staged in the round, with a cast of just five.

Max Gold is a gruff, ill-tempered Lear, his descent into madness more of a drift into senility than a fully-fledged fall into insanity. The remaining four cast members all multi-role impressively. Lucy Pearson is a willowy Cordelia, an infantile fool and an earnest Edgar. Michael Sheldon is a preening Burgundy and a fretful – then sorrowful – Gloucester. Natasha Rickman is both Goneril and Reagan, switching rapidly between sisters with a squeak of her voice and a flutter of her shawl, head high and air haughty at all times. Morgan Philpott takes on Oswald, Albany, Cornwall and France, relishing his multiple deaths and managing to maintain the boundaries of each character throughout, as all do. His breezy, mincing Oswald provides some welcome comic relief.

The aptly named adaptor-director Charlotte Conquest has won a resounding victory over what can be an impossibly tricky play. Not only does her version pare down the text to make it manageable with such a small cast, but her astute, imaginative direction keeps it accessible and lively throughout. She has fashioned a dynamic production that encompasses all the relevant themes – the blinding effects of flattery, the twisting nature of greed, the harsh rottenness of life itself – but never allows them to obscure the plot. This is, first and foremost, damn good storytelling.

And, appropriately enough, with the deafeningly silent bookshelves – over 3 miles of them apparently – listening in, everything feels as if it has just sprung from the pages of a novel. Ryan Dawson Laight’s design is elegant and understated – the set consists of a lone tree sprouting from a pile of dusty books, branches decorated with pages – and it is complemented well by Ashley Bale’s cool, kaleidoscopic lighting and Matt Eaton’s fidgety, electronic sound. This isn’t an England of days gone by, but an imagined – possibly dystopian – one, where characters use handguns and intercoms, but are dressed in an odd collection of scraps and faded dresses.

Yes, there is a fair-trade, arts-and-craft, keep-calm-and-carry-on kitsch to the whole thing that borders on cringe-worthy at times and yes, it’s best to retreat to the furthest corner of the store during the interval to avoid the atrociously decadent chatter of your well-heeled fellow-theatre goers (“Richard and I are taking little Hugo to see Lear at Blackwell’s tonight, as we really want to introduce him to literature at a young age, you know?”), but just *ahem* shelve that for two and a half hours, and you are left with a responsible, resonant production that brims with wit and imagination.

4/5

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