After the successful Hamlet adaptation back in August, Big Finish returns to the Bard.
This time it’s ‘King Lear’, another of Shakespeare’s renowned tragedies, getting the audio treatment under the direction of Barnaby Edwards. The legendary David Warner lends his inimitable voice to the title role for a barnstorming performance of cinematic calibre.

Synopsis

King Lear, ruler of Britain, decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. All they must do to gain their early inheritance is sing Lear’s praises. When his most faithful daughter Cordelia fails to sate to his ego, Lear ruthlessly disowned her. Lear puts his faith in his remaining daughters to take care of him now they have his throne. But the old man soon pays dearly for his vanity and recklessness. Meanwhile, the scheme of a bastard son sets Lear’s chief courtier against his heir and fails to see his folly until it’s too late.

King Lear

Shakespeare is thought to have written King Lear in 1605 with its first performance the following year. This three-hour audio performance has been adapted by Nicholas Pegg with help from Dr Martin Wiggins of The Shakespeare Institute. Of the two versions Shakespeare wrote, Pegg has opted for the later Folio version with elements of the Quarto mixed in. For my own part, though Hamlet is a play I know well, I’m less familiar with Lear. So I went to Shakespeare’s Globe and caught a production starring Kevin McNally shortly before it closed. Never let it be said I don’t do my research.

Cast & Characters

DAVID WARNER AND LISA BOWERMAN IN 'THE NEW ADVENTURES OF BERNICE SUMMERFIELD: VOLUME FOUR'
DAVID WARNER & LISA BOWERMAN IN ‘THE NEW ADVENTURES OF BERNICE SUMMERFIELD: SERIES 4’

King Lear boasts an all-star cast of Big Finish regulars. Not the least of which being the great David Warner in the title role. He’s teamed up once again with Lisa Bowerman as Regan, having worked together on the most recent Bernice Summerfield series. Meanwhile, Louise Jameson, best known for Doctor Who and The Omega Factor, takes on Goneril alongside Finty Williams as Cordelia. While the entire cast do an excellent job, I think Bowerman deserves a lot of praise for her performance. It’s likely that a lot of people who pick up this production will be familiar with her role as Bernice Summerfield. But Bowerman has inhabited the character of Regan so effectively that it wasn’t hard to shake off that association when listening to her.

Other Accents Borrow

As usual, a lot of cast members pull double or triple duty on their roles. But this can get even more confusing since the play calls on several characters to disguise themselves. So the cast members needed to be versatile enough to not only play multiple characters, but to play the same character in different ways. For the most part, they pull this off superbly though there were a few times when it’s easy to mix up who’s who. If you’re coming at this release with no experience of the source material, you may struggle in places. Despite a three hours length, the cast keep the pace going through every scene and that seemingly hefty runtime evaporates quickly.

Auricular Assurance

Between Edwards as director and Howard Carter managing sound design, the release takes full advantage of the audio format. While almost all of Hamlet takes place indoors, a large chunk of King Lear takes place outside in a storm. It also features a ferocious and bloody battle, which I don’t know if Big Finish has ever had to realise before. The crown jewel of the piece has to be Lear’s infamous speech in the third act, raging into the wind against his daughters. Carter’s sound work complements Warner’s voice and his reading of the scene incredibly well, making for an enthralling experience. You really feel the thunder in your gut as you listen and Lear’s words are balanced perfectly with the sound effects. You can make out what he’s saying but you never lose the sense that Lear’s helpless against nature.

Reverbs No Hollowness

Howard Carter has also contributed to the score of this production, taking an unusual but fresh approach to this play. Since King Lear is always regarded as a story about fathers and children, it’s easy to overlook the tense political situation that incites the plot. Carter has taken that on board and given the release a more militaristic score. Plenty of trumpets are interspersed between the acts, building and blending seamlessly into the battle scene that takes place at the start of part three. Though the lack of outro music makes an unsettling lurch from the final line into the special features.

Overall

The talented team at Big Finish have constructed a cinematic adaptation of ‘King Lear’ for audio. Lear’s speech in the storm is undoubtedly one of Big Finish’s greatest achievements in merging actor and sound effect. A well-selected cast and astute talent behind the script proves that Big Finish has a future with the theatre.

Blogtor Rating – 9/10

‘King Lear’ is available to buy now from the Big Finish website.

Synopsis

‘Oh, let me not be mad…’

In an ancient Britain of warring nobles and sibling rivalries, power is a precarious thing. When the ageing King Lear declares that he will divide his kingdom in three to prevent future strife, he unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that will unravel into treachery, horror, conflict and death.

Renowned for its pathos and poetry as much as for its savage violence, Shakespeare’s wildest tragedy remains as thrilling and relevant today as when it was first performed: King Lear is a tale of politics, ambition, greed, vanity, betrayal, love, pride, madness, war and bloody vengeance.

Adapted for audio by Nicholas Pegg
Consultant: Dr Martin Wiggins, The Shakespeare Institute
Producer: David Richardson
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Written By: William Shakespeare
Directed By: Barnaby Edwards

Cast

David Warner (King Lear), Louise Jameson (Goneril), Lisa Bowerman (Regan), Finty Williams (Cordelia), Mike Grady (The Fool), Tony Millan (The Earl of Gloucester / First Messenger), Paul Shelley (The Earl of Kent), Ray Fearon (The Duke of Cornwall), Nicholas Pegg (The Duke of Albany / Gloucester’s Servant / Curan), Raymond Coulthard (Edmund / Cornwall’s Servant / Second Messenger / Second Gentleman), Gwilym Lee (Edgar / Duke of Burgundy), Trevor Cooper (Oswald / Lear’s Gentleman / Third Messenger), Barnaby Edwards (The King of France / Old Man / Herald).  Other parts played by members of the cast.

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