Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Slinger, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Karen Archer, Neal Barry, Babou Ceesay, Sam Hazeldine, Joanna Horton, Jeremy Irons, Luke Norris, Sally Orrock, Helen Schlesinger, Laurence Spellman, John Stahl, Matthew Wilson
Dennis Kellys new play for the Royal Shakespeare Companys London season is a modern day retelling of the King Lear story.
When the hard-nosed Colm (Jeremy Irons), the chief executive of a powerful international company, decides to hand the reins over to Richard and Catherine, he unleashes an unprecedented wave of fighting and destruction as each tries to beat the other (and Colm who is still the chairman) for unrivalled control of the company.
The methods they employ to outmanoeuvre each other forming factions, leading each other into traps and using Colms son to their advantage make for memorable theatre, and show strong parallels with several of Shakespeares plays.
It is a nice touch that Richard consults not a soothsayer but an astrologist, as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan regularly used to do so before making important decisions.
Even during the strong opening, however, the play just feels too pegged to Shakespeare for it to truly speak the language of the cold corporate world. Too many lines fall uneasily between Shakespearean style and contemporary dialect, such as when Richard proclaims she spreads venom against me, she spits poison at me and my leadership. It also isnt believable that Colm, who by virtue of his success would have known how to control people, would (as one staff member actually tells him) transfer power in one move and expect there not to be consequences.
Nevertheless, for the first third of the play any quibbles are fairly minor. Unfortunately, however, it then breaks away from its realistic setting to portray an all out war between Richard and Catherine, who wear military uniform, form armies, try to gain control of hills, and physically kill each other. The problem is not so much that all of this is highly unrealistic, but that if Kellys intention was to make a Shakespearean play for our time, then his approach hardly generates a modern day parallel at all. Surely, that would have been better done by portraying board room, rather than physical, fighting, and with the fantasy setting occupying most of the plays three hour running time, it feels like a long time to be going down such a dead end.
From amongst the strong cast, Jonathan Slinger (a star of the RSCs recent history cycle) stands out as Richard, whom, unlike many ruthless men, simply comes across as snide rather than charming. Jeremy Irons is brilliant when Colm is at his most masterful, or simply silent on stage, but as soon as he becomes crazed and pathetic, and descends into long monologues about shells, it all becomes rather silly.
Irons acts his heart out – the problem lies with a script that assigns such unconvincing traits to this modern day character, rather than in the quality of his central performance.