King Lear (1994): Talawa

PrKing Lear (

Live Performance

PRINCIPAL CAST: Lolita Chakrabarti (Goneril); Dhirendra (Edgar); David Fielder (Gloucester); Mona Hammond (Fool); David Harewood (Edmund); Diane Parish (Cordelia); Ben Thomas (Lear); Cathy Tyson (Regan); David Webber (Kent).

This production toured, although exact dates are currently unknown, apart from its run at the Cochrane Theatre, London from 16 March - 16 April 1994 and a February run at the Nia Centre, Hulme, Manchester, where it was reviewed by the Independent.

"'Old before thy time' must be the line that has inspired the interpretation of the title role in Yvonne Brewster's new production of King Lear. Ben Thomas's strapping monarch certainly gives no impression of crawling towards death, more that he is unburdening himself while still young enough to enjoy an early retirement. Several years ago in Deborah Warner's Kick Theatre Lear, Robert Demeger played the king as unusually young, mainly to give his patriarchal authority a martinet's threatening aspect. There is little of this about Thomas's version, for all his imposing presence. The impression instead is of a man young enough to remember the pranks of youth, and, having never outgrown them, eager for their recapture. So his early roistering in Goneril's household features lots of big-boy-playing-little-boy pranks, such as imaginary horseback riding. The pained look of Goneril (Lolita Chakrabarti) as she regards his cavortings with Mona Hammond's contrastingly mature Fool, is of someone who feels she has outgrown her own father. There are losses and gains from this approac. We miss the sheer pathos of age; nor do we have much sense of a once substantial figure, still capable of drawing the bow of unthinking and unchallenged anger. Certainly Diane Parish's refreshingly girlish Cordelia does not anticipate his terror. The principal gain from Thomas's comparative youthfulness is that it serves to emphasise the catastrophe of Lear's madness. The boyish galloping comes back in the mad scene and presents us with a different sort of pain - embarrassment for a man barely beyond the prime of life making a spectacle of himself. His lunacy, too, has remissions - the great sexual denunciation of the 'sulphurous pit' seems fuelled by a deep memory still felt directly in the loins. Most powefully, Thomas' delivery of 'I know thee well enough' to the blind Gloucester is a moment of noble lucidity when, for a momen that is both terrible and hopefuly, the dementia drops quite away. But as a whole the production does not have enough similar illuminations. It is straightforwardly and clearly delivered but perceptual surprises are few, either verbally or visually. Designer Ellen Cairns' sharply raked disc is a suitable vehicle for such precipitous action, but the long red ropes hanging from above as a kind of cage are only sporadically effective, and their continual belaying an irritation. They hold a loose white canopy which descends to envelop Lear in the storm scene, an idea that must have looked better in the mind's eye than in practice. Elsewhere, the show is frustratingly erratic. The play's sexual preoccupations are brilliantly set off by the way Karl Collins' Oswald places a red cushion to establish the household of the lascivious Goneril; but then Poor Tom's bawdy babble is accompanied by ludicrous pelvic thrusting. This is not among Talawa's best work, but it is clear and positive and was well received by a young and attentive audience."  ~ Jeffrey Wainwright, "Youth custody", Independent, 26 February 1994

"Talawa Theatre Company's clear, vigorous production is given a firm overall shape by Ben Thomas's rock-like performance in the lead. He begins as a totem of kingship: imperious, bearing, harsh voice, and the unseeing eyes of the true autocrat. At the end, he is a broken idol, the picture of suffering and guilt, which he only partly understands. In between, Thomas's touch is a little less certain, because Yvonne Brewster's production is a little less certain. The problem is how to create a dramatic language for a largely Afro-Asian cast, given the fact that the body language of the two races tends to be different. David Harewood, a powerful black actor, plays Edmund as a confident, dangerous, artful brute, a kind of Mike Tyson with brains. Dhirendra, a Hindu actor, plays his half-brother Edgar as an innocent, slightly ingratiating youth; disguised as Poor Tom, he wears a picturesque loincloth and is given to rotating his hips. This causes a lot of well-deserved laughter, and entirely takes the terror out of the storm scene. The two whites in the cast, playing Albany and Gloucester, are distinguished by having almost no body language at all. Perhaps Brewster wanted each actor to express himself individually? If so, this works against the very idea of cross-casting, which is not just to give coloured actors work, but to prove that a multi-racial company can take on the language of a play or create a new, coherent one for it....The greatest weakness of the production is the lack of any real relationship between Lear and the Fool. Mona Hammond gives an uncharacteristically unappealing and monotonous performance, both fussy and dull, which makes it hard to care what happens to her."  ~ Sunday Times, 27 March 1994

"The Talawa Company's all-black, or black and Asian production of King Lear at the Cochrane Theatre, gets off to a strong start. You are caught up in the Gloucester and Edmund sub-plot from Gloucester's very first words: to an unusual degree, though without forcing the pace, you are made to see Edmund's point of view, and Ben Thomas immediately establishes himself as a commanding Lear. True, he looks young for the part - this is a Lear who has decided to take early retirement; but any oddity is more than offset by the dynamism with which he delivers his lines and the deceptive slow-burn of his anger. The rest of the cast, though they are uneven, begin straightforwardly enough. You feel that you are being carried close to the heart of the play, and, for the first few scenes at least, that you are following its essential contours. But then the production loses its way. The main trouble is a familiar one. The director, Yvonne Brewster, seems under desperate pressure (no doubt it is just the pressure of the age) to come up with new readings and new ideas. Some of her innovations work. The use of red guy-ropes as all-purpose props is effective, especially when they are made to double as weapons; it is quite amusing to have Kent, in his serving-man disguise, adopt a rollicking West Indian accent. But why have the Fool played by a middle-aged woman - and a middle-aged rapper at that? And as for the sexed-up antics on the heath, the less said the better. THe play never really recovers from them. You are left with a frustrating mixture of the good and the misguided. Ben Thomas, when he is allowed to, continues to display authority. David Webber makes a solid Kent; David Harewood is consistently convincing as a sardonic, fast-moving Edmund. But the sense of what might have been is at least as strong as the sense of what is actually achieved."  ~ John Gross, Sunday Telegraph, 27 March 1994

"Talawa Theatre Company sets King Lear in a post-millennial world. The heath is cardboard city, the court a boardroom. So says the press release. Yvonne Brewster's staging only hazily conveys this reading. A cloud, hovering around in the suggestive shape of a Georgia O'Keeffe convolvulus, does briefly descend to form a tent. Lear is enthroned on an architect's model for Docklands but surely he and the Fool are ancient Noh actors with their white face paint. Letters are sealed in space-age plastic yet the royals are costumed in traditional African hats, Arab head scarves and Indian frock coats. Meanwhile, the intrusive set's red guy ropes create a circus not the City. Brewster disperses her production's power by being in so many minds. Ben Thomas, though brave stepping in when Norman Beaton became ill, is unwise acting Lear aged 39. He lacks the pathos of frailty and does not map the king's Fool truly. He enters with macho majesty; one wonders why he is even planning his retirement. Next, as if traffic to Albany was diverted via Mars, he arrives at Goneril's bent double with elbows out and both hands on the small of his back like a farcical caricature of old age. This clumsy staging is insensitive to how King Lear tightrope walks between tears and laughter....The cast plump for buffoonery more often than is appropriate. Edgar, in desperate straits, is apparently just fooling: mad Tom is Mr Crotch Comedy. Why do actors feel compelled to thrust their pelvises whenever Shakespeare punningly slips in a rude word? David Harewood's Edmund the Bastard is potently funny and makes something out of a black company performing this play: discriminated against, he turns to crime. David Webber doing Kent's rude dialect as a cussing Jamaican is enormously witty. But what about the Fool singing "The wind and the rain" to the tune of - yes - Singing in the Rain? Mona Hammond's funny business must be driving Lear round the bend. Goneril and Regan (Lolita Chakrabarti and Cathy Tyson) have no coruscating ice in their souls. Petite Diane Parish's Cordelia is a child, an innocent indeed. However, though she claims she speaks what she feels, no one is feeling what they speak."  ~ Kate Bassett, "Too young to retire", The Times, 20 March 1994