14 Jul King Lear
Directed by Andrew Hilton
09 February – 11 March 2000
Production Photos © Alan Moore 2000
Our very first Tobacco Factory season began inauspiciously. We were an unknown company playing in a new and little known venue in a depressed inner city area of Bristol, and our first Tuesday evening performance played to only 12 people. But shortly after that The Independent gave almost half a page to an enthusiastic review of the production (see below) and the tide turned instantly.
Jonathan Nibbs Earl of Kent
John Nicholas Earl of Gloucester
Cameron Fitch Edmund
Roland Oliver King Lear
Dee Sadler Goneril
Saskia Portway Regan
Lucy Black Cordelia
Peter Clifford Duke of Cornwall
Dan Maxwell Duke of Albany
John Mackay Duke of Burgundy
Mark Buffery King of France
Stuart Crossman Edgar
David Collins Oswald
Brian Knight Knight
Paul Nicholson Fool
Chris Donnnelly Captain
Director Andrew Hilton
Associate Director Dominic Power
Set & Costume Designer James Helps
Costume Supervisor Jennie Falconer
Lighting Designer Andy Collins
Composer John Telfer
Fight Directors Kate Waters & Tim Klotz
Portrait painted by Francesca Maxwell
Production Manager Simon Airey
Stage Managers Geoff Milbank & Jacqui Swann
Assistant Stage Manager Wesley Morgan
The Independent THE MAIN EVENT – Shakespeare meets ‘The Long Good Friday’
It’s hard to call Bristol’s Tobacco Factory a theatre, since the cavernous expanses and cat’s cradle of superannuated pipework are more reminiscent of the derelict industrial spaces appropriated by the high bohemian wing of the modern art-installation movement. And yet, in this clattering emptiness, theatrical magic is being woven.
This small studio space provides the venue in which to realise director Andrew Hilton’s dream of large-cast classical productions of Shakespeare staged in intimate surroundings. This 16-actor production gives firm affirmation to Hilton’s vision of chamber theatre. As the onlookers face one another across a narrow stage, the setting has all the tense intimacy of a tennis match. With the audience placed virtually in the heart of the action, far-off regal strife is brought into tight close-up, transformed into a bitter family row as gripping and gritty as a TV drama. At times, one feels like an embarrassed bystander in a riveting domestic squabble.
John Mackay, Roland Oliver & Mark Buffery
Roland Oliver’s Lear is no effete royal. In the manner of the times, this is a man who has fought and schemed his way to the kingship, more East End boy made good than soft hereditary monarch, his accent slipping down the social scale as his anger boils. He demands that gangland touchstone “respect”, and grumbles like a lion in winter angered by the insolence of his cubs when he does not receive it.
Saskia Portway as Regan
Those cubs are presented with considerably more substance than one often sees in productions of King Lear. Dee Sadler’s Goneril is a character of depth, a woman more sinned against than sinning, with the serious and somewhat sad demeanour often found among eldest children. She strikes a clear contrast with Saskia Portway’s Regan, who has the polished malice of a stiletto. A similar high standard of characterisation is evident among the other actors. Even the nauseatingly virtuous characters – Kent (played by Jonathan Nibbs) and Cordelia (Lucy Black) – are stripped of their customary cloying sweetness.
The richness of characterisation is only one aspect of the depth in which Hilton has penetrated the piece … The production is as tight and pacy as a thriller, John Telfer’s music lends a dramatic underscore and sense of doom to the proceedings, and the presence of so many actors imparts a deceptive sense of opulence to the staging which is very different from the usual sparse small studio productions.
One of the finest productions of Shakespeare – or any other playwright for that matter – seen in Bristol in years … Go and see it.
Toby O’Connor Morse
Paul Nicholson as the Fool
The Daily Express There’s good news in Bristol where provision of serious drama is slim. Now there’s a new company called Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory – unfunded and with a company of 16 actors – devoted to staging the man of the millennium … in the old Wills cigarette factory in the Bedminster district.
This Lear is rough at the edges, underpowered in some corners, but overall it is utterly gripping. Roland Oliver gives us a robust, old-fashioned Lear who is every inch a king and there’s a memorable Gloucester from John Nicholas. Staged in lush Elizabethan costume, directed with unflashy focus by Andrew Hilton, this Lear is fantastic value.
Venue From its chillingly curt opening and the infamous storm scenes – here performed, of necessity, in close-up – to the sudden acceleration of pace which comes with the blinding of Gloucester (John Nicholas), the touching reunion with Cordelia (Lucy Black) and the carefully handled big cruel finish, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s debut production is an exemplary interpretation of the Bard’s darkest tragedy. What gives it strength and impact, however, isn’t just the fact that the Edmund vs Edgar swordfight actually looks like it might go either way or that Roland Oliver manages to deliver Lear’s most difficult line – “Howl howl howl howl howl” – without sounding absurd, it’s the overall clarity of the storytelling and the quality of the characterisation. Nobody is a stereotype. Not even goody-two-shoes Edgar (Stuart Crossman) or arch slimebag Edmund (Cameron Fitch). The 16-strong cast continually uncover fresh and subtle ways of understanding this peculiarly dysfunctional bunch of aristocrats and villains. Oliver’s Lear is a thoughtful and exploratory performance while Dee Sadler and Saskia Portway do an impressive job of bringing a whole new dimension to the relationship between Goneril and Regan. Thankfully free of bombastic ranting and pretentious clutter, this is no-nonsense Shakespeare at its most effective.
We cannot be certain when King Lear was written but it seems likely that it was during the years immediately following the accession of James 1st in 1603. As usual with Shakespeare the play had its antecedents: a play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir; a passage in Holinshed’s Chronicles; possibly also a contemporary real-life scandal about the ill-treatment of a wealthy man by his daughters. But probably none of these in themselves would have provoked Shakespeare into writing one of the great works of world theatre.
For that we should look back to the last years of the reign of Elizabeth I. She reigned for an astonishing 45 years, which means that the vast majority of English men and women living in 1600 had known nothing other than an England governed and secured by her, and a culture characterised by her carefully constructed myth of strength, benevolence and wisdom. The English were, in a sense, her children. What such complete authority does to a nation is hard for us to imagine, but we may speculate, perhaps, that the twin perils of passive dependence on her omnipotence and a powerful but unacknowledged hunger for self-empowerment pointed Shakespeare towards this finest and completest expression of his tragic vision.