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Learning to love Lear with the help of Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

LEARThis is my third Lear and I’m gradually growing fond of this Shakespeare tragedy.

The first time I saw it,  with Ian McKellan in the eponymous role, the King's scheming and bitchy daughters Goneril and Regan were just too abhorrent, I couldn’t wait for them to get their just desserts. And as for Lear himself, he too, I felt, got just what he deserved.

I don't mind an out an out baddie but for the goodies to stay loyal there has to be something to empathise with, you have to believe that what they are doing is right and worthy. This, and perhaps hindsight from watching subsequent productions, brought out the tragedy of the story far more for me than the first version with McKellan.

This quality production from the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company sees John Shrapnel take on the lead, giving him that initial stubborn pride that sets him on the path to destruction but then gradually peeling away the layers of corrupted power to reveal a vulnerable old man.

Goneril (Julia Hills) and Regan (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) while fawning over their father when he initially asks for their declarations of love seem ill-judged rather than calculating. Their darker motives appear gradually as their confidence in their new found power grows into a delicious coldness and increasingly rash decision-making.

Shakespeare's dialogue is delivered by all with great clarity which is always a treat - only in some of the action sequences and during the storm in the second half does some of the dialogue get swallowed up by the surroundings.

Shrapnel is electrifying as Lear, an equal to Derek Jacobi's performance at the Donmar just over a year ago. Equal but different. Shrapnel's Lear is a more earthy, brutal and tyrannical King as apposed to Jacobi's vain, self-important and stubborn interpretation.

I must also mention Jack Whitam as the bastard half-brother Edmund with a chip on his shoulder. With his pearl-drop earing I couldn't help but be reminded of a villainous version of Tim McInnery's Lord Percy in Blackadder.

There was no hanging of the fool in this version but plenty of bloody fights and of course the infamous eye-gouging which is always going to win points. It is a very traditional production in setting and costumes albeit with a slight twist into more contemporary dress towards the end which felt a little odd.

I'd heard very good things about Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory's Richard II and I think this production deserves equal praise. I'm going to give it four and a half stars.

King Lear runs at Bristol's Tobacco Factory until March 24 and is well worth the £16 ticket price but get their early to queue up for the best seats.