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.)