By ROZ DINEEN
John McEnery as King Lear
The Rose was the first purpose-built theatre in Southwark. Before The Globe, before, even, The Swan, The Rose stood among the bear-baiting, whore-housing, dens and iniquities. Doctor Faustus was staged there, as were both the Henry VIs and Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. By 1606 the space had been abandoned, it was repurposed, built over and then lay undiscovered until the late 1980s when an office block came down above it.
Our offices being located where they are (sort of on top of the huge and morphing London Bridge station), the Rose is our local theatre and has been well-frequented by TLS staff. It is still an archaeological site, a big hole, an excavation, partly unroofed. A viewing platform has been installed – like Juliet’s balcony – over the damp concrete scene. It is quite remarkable that on this platform (not even a wooden O) it is just about possible to fit fifty seats and a production, let alone an impressive and moving staging of King Lear. The Malachites company, here directed by Benjamin Blyth, have done exactly this.
The benefits of an intimate Lear are in evidence from the start. The King (John McEnery) holds court to carve up his kingdom for his daughters and “unburden'd crawl toward death”. It’s a scene that has been known to invite over-acting, but here there is no eye-rolling, there are no meaningful looks; with the audience in such close proximity, everything can be under-played, the daughters’ slightest smirks and hesitations are detectable. Goneril, Reagan and Cordelia (respectively Claire Dyson, Orla Jackson and Emma Kirrage) are smart, subtle and individuated. Lear would give the most opulent third to his youngest, Cordelia, but first she has to play his game, she must delight him with some ornate language. Cordelia offers “nothing”.