King Lear
directed by Selina Cartmell 27 February 2013 Abbey Theatre – Dublin

Par Charles Holdefer
Publication en ligne le 04 avril 2013

Texte intégral

1Never work with children or animals!” goes an old show business adage. A dog like Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a source of potential trouble – causing accidents or upstaging the other performers, destabilizing their authority. Things can get messy.

2Before the opening scene of the Abbey Theatre’s new production of King Lear, enormous dogs can be seen striding across the stage. They move through the shadows, their toenails clicking. These Irish wolfhounds are impressive, stately and, for their size, a little unnerving.


Hugh O’Conor as The Fool and Owen Roe as King Lear, with Irish wolfhound Bronagh”

Photo Credit: Anthony Woods

3The dogs’ presence on stage is only fleeting, a pre-show tease, but it proves to be an effective device, creating tension before the play even starts. The audience wonders: where will these huge beasts fit in? Ostensibly a part of Lear’s entourage along with his boisterous knights, the dogs underline the outsized nature of the King and his whims.

4Selina Cartmell’s Lear is full of such nice touches, many of them counter-intuitive. With Owen Roe turning in a terrific performance in the lead and an energetic cast backing him up, there is much to commend this staging. Visceral but avoiding bombast, this Lear leaves a lasting impression.

To his dog-hearted daughters, these things sting”

5The most dangerous beasts, of course, are the two-legged variety, and Cartmell loses no time in turning them loose. The division of the kingdom and Cordelia’s banishment happen in a trice: the text is truncated as Cartmell seems eager to push out all of the chess pieces as quickly as possible. It’s a choice of pace over nuance, and though this keeps the action lively, Lear’s initial rage comes so fast that perhaps it doesn’t have a chance to resonate.

6Thereafter, though, the play settles into a more satisfying rhythm. All the sisters offer solid performances: Regan (Caoilfhionn Dunne) summons a predatory nastiness, as ferocious as any hound; Goneril (Tina Kellegher) is self-righteous and visibly pregnant at the beginning, which raises the stakes when her father curses her womb; while Cordelia (Beth Cooke) avoids any hint of the saccharine and successfully projects both firmness and frailty.


 “Beth Cooke as Cordelia and Rohan Leahy as the Doctor”

Photo credit: Anthony Woods

7Owen Roe as Lear, though, is in a class of his own. In the early scenes he oozes self-satisfaction, striding across the stage like an Orson Welles who has just consumed seven roasted chickens. His knights hover in the background and serve as an unconventional chorus, pounding the boards in approbation, giving the royal pomp an additional vigorous flavour of Broadway’s Stomp. Cartmell and her choreographer, Liz Roche, deserve credit for managing a crowded stage in such a pleasing manner.

8Because of these early displays, Lear’s fall, when it comes, feels all the more precipitous. Roe does an excellent job of charting the King’s descent from bad to worse to abject. His Lear is not only stripped but also seems, compared to his former self, horribly shrunken.



 “Owen Roe’s mutable Lear”

Photo credits: Anthony Woods

“Truth's a dog must to kennel”

9The King is not the only one afflicted, either. The Fool (Hugh O’Conor) brings an atypical physical vulnerability to his role, using a crutch and limping around in a leg brace. The source of his injury is not clear but it does add an additional degree of pathos to the Fool’s wisdom. Gloucester (Lorcan Cranitch) also evinces vulnerability but, in his case, it takes the form of mental distress. His disarray and anguish when confronted with Lear’s raving is very keenly conveyed. Other scenes, like his “jump” from the Dover cliffs, are presented in a fairly understated manner, but this does not diminish their power. Cranitch plays Gloucester as a dutiful functionary who is hopelessly out of his depth.


 “Hugh O’Conor’s afflicted Fool”

Photo credit: Anthony Woods

10The set designed by Garance Marneur is on two levels but is otherwise sober and unfussy. It serves the action satisfactorily, though the choice to have Edgar (Aaron Monaghan) descend from the front is sometimes distractingly gymnastic. Edmund (Ciarán McMenamin) is an effectively oily operator but his fight scene with Edgar, despite the novelty of martial arts sticks, is rather formulaic. The music, too, is uneven. It’s a splendid moment when Lear and his entourage sing Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The energy is irresistible. The use of pre-recorded music elsewhere, though (e.g., a piano to signal the King’s encroaching madness), is sometimes distancing and does not pack the same punch. More live performance would have been desirable. The brief taste of the real thing leaves the spectator wanting more.

11Cartmell makes interesting use of the stage apron, sometimes positioning her actors far in front and having them speak, in the fashion of an aside, directly to the audience instead of to their interlocutor. This technique facilitates the fast-moving early scenes. She takes this approach a step further in sequences regarding Lear’s madness, reducing the speeches to quick cuts, with changes in lighting and music as speeches flit back and forth between the apron and the upper level of the set. The overall effect recalls the language of cinema. It is all very well timed and tightly executed but it also feels rather busy—on occasion, a bit constraining, too, as if not trusting the actors (and the audience) with the text.   

“We that are young / Shall never see so much”

12In fairness, Cartmell’s style is otherwise allergic to gimmickry. The dogs do not run the show. There is no disputing the seriousness of this production and, at the same time, it is not over-earnest. This King Lear consistently entertains.

13And not only does it entertain, it strikes its blows. When the final death scene arrives, with the “howls” arising yet one more time (who knows how often this has been performed in the last five hundred years?), Roe’s artistry is equal to the task and he channels a terrible power. The moment feels very much in the present, and it is genuinely ghastly.

14After which, there is very little to say. As Albany observes, “we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” The Abbey Theatre has respected a high standard, allowing its audience to see so much1.


1  The Cast
King of France: Serge Bolze
Earl of Kent: Sean Campion
Cordelia: Beth Cooke
Gloucester: Lorcan Cranitch
Duke of Cornwall: Phelim Drew
Regan:   Caoilfhionn Dunne
Duke of Albany: John Kavanagh
Goneril:  Tina Kellegher
Curan, the doctor: Ronan Leahy
Duke of Burgundy: Andrew Macklin
Edmund: Ciarán McMenamin
Edgar: Aaron Monaghan
Fool: Hugh O’Conor
Lear: Owen Roe
Oswald: Dylan Tighe
Ensemble: Aidan Crowe, Robert Fawsitt, Manus Halligan, John Merriman, Danny O’Connor, Lauterio Zamparelli
Creative Team
Director: Selina Cartmell
Set Design: Garance Marneur: Set Design
Lighting Design: Chahine Yavroyan
Costume Design: Gaby Rooney
Composer: Conor Linehan
Sound Design: Carl Kennedy
Choreographer: Liz Roche

Pour citer ce document

Par Charles Holdefer, «King Lear», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], L'Oeil du Spectateur, N°5 - Saison 2012-2013, Adaptations scéniques de pièces de Shakespeare, mis à jour le : 04/04/2013, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Charles Holdefer

Charles Holdefer is a Maître de Conférences at the University of Poitiers. His most recent novel is Back in the Game  (2012). His article “Bad Shakespeare: Adapting a Tradition” appears in Screening Text, Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Ariane Hudelet, eds., (McFarland, 2013). His fiction and criticism have also appeared in the New England Review, North American Review, Antioch Review, World Literature Today, New York Journal of Books and other publications.