Young Vic Theatre, London SE1/touring
Opened 15 June, 1996

Denmark's Theater La Balance specialises in creating work of particular relevance to young people; the company tours Britain this month as part of the first "Out Of LIFT" season with Cordelia, director Marc van der Velden's rewrite of King Lear. Van der Velden's intention is to address the issue of young people caring for their elderly parents; consequently, in his version of the Lear story Cordelia takes the place of both the Fool and Kent, disguising herself in motley to accompany Lear once he has been spurned by Goneril and Regan. Lear himself assumes the additional role of Gloucester, blinded by Edmund and bent on throwing himself off the cliffs at Dover.

Conflating Shakespeare's characters creates as much narrative complexity as clarity. Having excised Gloucester, van der Velden is deprived of half his opportunities to explore filial piety or ingratitude: Edmund is as villainous as ever, but has no family to betray other than his elder half-sister Emilia (the character formerly known as Edgar), Cordelia's lady-in-waiting who, in a packed agenda, alternates between posing as the bedlam beggar Poor Tina and mustering an army to restore Lear to the throne, culminating in her kendo-style duel with Edmund.

What remains is a production played in traverse, with actors delivering almost as many of their lines in English as in Danish of stark, striking visuals, some able performances (Henriette Rosenbeck as Cordelia at times overshadowed by the Björk-like Anne-Karina Nikolajsen who, in a further complication, doubles as Emilia and Goneril) and some not-so-fine ones (Tage Larsen rumbles a lot as Lear, Mikkel Haarder Munck-Hansen's fluent English serves mostly to show up his one-dimensionality as Edmund) and a suprising final twist. However, van der Velden's remoulding of the story with the goal of pointing up familial duties between generations shows no net gain; for every point at which the family focus is tightened, an end flaps loose somewhere else, usually to be tucked away hurriedly under Emilia's skirts, so to speak. Cordelia works as a drama in itself, and (just about) as a version of King Lear, but to be frank so what?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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