Review – Brian Blessed’s King Lear – Guildford Shakespeare Company at Guildford Holy Trinity Church

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It was impossible to resist the draw of one of my favorite British actors starring in one of the best of the Shakespeares – Brian Blessed in King Lear – even though it meant I was going to have to trek to Guildford to do it and watch an amateur theater company attack (possibly literally) the play. And God knew what it meant that it was going to be performed in a church – bad sightlines? The horror of three hours in pews? Or … worst of all … that I was going to spend the money and time travelling outside of London only to discover that my entire reason for going had collapsed on stage and was no longer to be seen in the production?

After this truly bad bit of news flashed through the wires Tuesday, I was relieved to hear no further news of illness on Blessed’s part. I was excited about being a part of his Lear, but I didn’t want to be a part of some horrible tragic history. The front of house confirmed on my arrival that all was well and there had been no sign of any illness on his part Wednesday night – whew! My companion and I dropped our rented cushions on our chair (I was in the fifth row and sightlines were good), and I ducked out to the Sainsbury’s to grab a quick sandwich – while they did have drinks and crisps, there was no cafe in the church, and even though I’d gone straight after work, I’d only actually made it to Guildford at 7 PM, meaning no sit down dinner was possible. (In case you’re wondering, it’s only a ten minute walk to the church from the main Guildford station, so there’s no need for a cab.)

At last the lights darkened and the cast gathered on stage – the opening lines were spoken – and Brian Blessed walked on stage! I wanted to shout “Blessed’s alive!” but restrained myself, as did the rest of the audience who avoided a tacky welcome ovation in favor of breathless silence. At last, it begins!

Thus started the loudest and most comic version of a Shakespearean tragedy I had ever witnessed. Blessed bellowed, he capered, he chortled, he took every turn to display his fantastic voice but never once relaxed into a quiet moment. No, this was Lear the war hero, Lear the man of action, Lear who was loud and noisy and fully capable of tossing ay of the other actors through the scenery. Every transition was signaled by some of the most horrifying organ music ever to grace the stage, lending the entire affair the air of a Hammer Horror, or possibly Carry On Ranting. The effect was greatly aided by the church setting, as all of the trappings were in place – you could easily imagine that behind the curtains someone was positively gouting fake blood while the cameras rolled and we got ready for the reveal that there had been a murder in the cathedral.

But, no, what was really going on was a performance of King Lear that was bleeding dry through a lack of subtlety, so much so that when one character walked on stage and spoke I briefly thought we were getting a guest visit from Baldric. To be honest, I was actually very pleased with the performances of Edmund (the “evil bastard”), who was deliciously bad at a level that almost matched Lear; and the nuanced performance of Gloucester. But all such things were washed away in the tide of crayon colored Bard that gushed from nearly every level of this production. I did feel a bit of a twinge of tragedy about the whole thing, a brief fear as Blessed grasped his heart in a moment which, as it turned out, was thankfully in the script: it reminded me of another Lear, one who was truly undone and nearly unmade by his health, as documented in the play My Perfect Mind. Lear is an old man’s tale and it’s one that many actors perform at the end of their careers. I’m glad this was not the final show for Brian Blessed, and that I got to see him on stage in his own, full, roaring glory; but some tiny bit of me wished I was seeing a better Lear and a little less Blessed. Ah well. If nothing else, I saw enough to not feel obligated to wait through to the end of the second half, and I did manage to get home right about eleven. It was certainly an event and worth £25, but your joy levels may be different from mine.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, January 22, 2015. It continues through February 14th.)

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7 Responses to “Review – Brian Blessed’s King Lear – Guildford Shakespeare Company at Guildford Holy Trinity Church”

  1. Marie Ridley Says:

    Last night (29th January) we didn’t get to see Brian Blessed sadly as he was indisposed. Instead we saw Terence Wilton reading his lines from a script. He gave it a good go to his credit but a lot of the style and dialogue was of course lost. The sound overall was truly awful. I couldn’t hear much of what was said at times due to overly loud music blaring from the speakers from organ music to storm effects etc. It was incredibly difficult to follow because of that. It was uncomfortable in there and chilly. We left at the interval . Having travelled there from Portsmouth it was all extremely disappointing. Many of the actors talked away from the audience and some of them compensated for that by yelling. The addressing the audience by several of the actors didn’t quite work for me either. I know it was perhaps not as it should have been given the fact Brian Blessed was absent but the direction would have been the same. The barman in the pub overheard our comments about it and it was clearly not the first time he’d heard them. We were not the only ones to leave at the interval.
    All in all, having paid the same as everyone else did who did get to see Brian (minus a script) we felt a bit robbed.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      I’m really very truly sorry you had such a rotten night. Mine was bad as well but I did at least get to see Brian Blessed. Thanks for letting me know what happened!

  2. Rick Reid Says:

    Not even Brian Blessed could have saved this one- not seen worse since Collingwood’s Frankenstein….well…anyway- no brian left us instantly disappointed and the understudy- I recognise the name but can’t put anything of worth to him had to read from the script- reducing the Lear character to almost nothing- acoustics were dire- did noone check the sound in this place? Actors turned away from audience and in such a poor acoustic environment you couldn’t hear a thing- then the silly SFX and music they put in just made it less intelligible- ok- its raining- we get the idea- NOW SWITCH IT OFF- Lear’s rant on the heath completely lost- acting was university-standard with lots of flailing arms and overacting- desperate to make it look good- Edmund and Edgar- hardly differentiated themselves by both undertaking clumsy entrances into the audience- no descent into chaos or madness by Lear- an over-excited and irritating fool- a clueless Goneril and an unconvincing Gloucester and Edmund- lots of comedy moments missed…an irritating two hours of my life I can’t get back…at least the Timothy Taylor Landlord was served ok in the plastic-eateries paradise that is commuterville Guildford…a real stinker…

    • Noble Mark Says:

      I swerved going altogether, because the production was Blessed-less by the time of the performance I had tickets for. The Guildford Shakespeare Company never tire of saying how good they are on social media, and yet all the evidence points to a sub-amateur company surrounded by apologists (or at least local folk prepared to lap up whatever warm diarrhoea the company serves them). The truth is that this production was predicated on having its star name, and a lot of tickets were sold on the strength of that. To have that star medically retired less than half way through an ‘extended’ run is shambolic. And seeing honest comments on here has been refreshing. I am going to seek a refund from the GSC, and I would urge anyone else who feels let down to do the same!

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