Oddbodies’ one man King Lear is something of a miniature masterpiece. Performing this seemingly impossible feat with only a drum, bottle and guitar, Paul Morel is a master storyteller, and has an easy way with a comic aside.
In front of a small, but discerning crowd at Haverhill Arts centre, Paul enters disarmingly, in t-shirt and jeans, as if he’s a member of the audience himself, looking for his seat. A spotlight shines on his waiting guitar.
The audacity of the project is astonishing – Shakespeare’s greatest play, some of his greatest poetry and just one man to pull it off. The conceit is a fine one – Paul is Lear’s Fool and relays the action like a pub anecdote, paraphrasing the boring bits, leaping in and out of character, but giving us the major speeches and crucial exchanges as they were set down by Shakespeare.
He has a script propped up on a music stand, but as far as I could tell, barely glanced at it. While the banter flowed freely between Paul and the audience, make no mistake there was some brilliant acting on display. Each of the characters was a perfectly realised creation – from the barrel chested Lear himself (who reduces both physically and mentally throughout the course of the play) to the sweet voiced siren Regan, and Gonerill, who sounded all the world like a haughty Margaret Thatcher.
Edmund, Gloucester’s treacherous, illegitimate son, is played like a cockney bad boy who’s walked off the set of Eastenders, while his father is a wheezing wide-boy, on his last legs. The pitiable scene when he loses his eyes and the aftermath with his blind wandering, is magnificently done. Paul points out that the irony that he only ‘sees’ his error in favouring Edmund over Edgar, after he loses his eyes.
Some of the minor characters and scenes are best – the ‘oily herbert’ Oswold riding alongside Kent, is realised brilliantly. The two banter as they ride – with Paul unable to resist a gallop across the stage.
There is no fourth wall in this version of the play – Paul chats with us throughout, and invites us to be part of the action. But it is all carefully calibrated – the casual banter quickly moves into darker territory (‘Why didn’t Shakespeare call one of the brothers Sydney, or something, instead of Edgar and Edmund?’ He asks. ‘It would be much less confusing.’). Like Shakespeare’s writing itself, the performance moves dramatically between comedy and tragedy. Lear’s quiet realisation that he has made a calamitous mistake banishing his youngest, and loving daughter Cordelia is unbearably moving. The key lines were vivid and supremely well delivered: ‘I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.’
For the battle scenes between England and France, half the crowd are encouraged to chant England football anthems, while the other yells ‘vive le roi!’ The challenges of staging are ingeniously met by director John Mowat – the duel between Edgar and Edmund is staged with two drumsticks. Lear’s throne doubles up as Kent’s stocks and a the drum becomes the thunder over the heath.
Perhaps most effective of all is the music. The play begins with a falsetto lament that sets a sombre mood. From comic songs that accelerate the action, to a beautiful lilting balled to give voice to Cordelia’s sorrow, Paul’s singing and playing are magnificent.
A tour de force of physical theatre, with brilliant speaking, this version of the play is at once a comedy and tragedy, and in the true spirit of Shakespeare. Paul’s energy, charm and quick wit, are a more than match for the great writing. It all makes for a brilliantly entertaining, and frequently astonishing evening. Bravo to Haverhill Arts Centre for bringing such a brave piece of theatre to the town.