1623 Theatre Company presents
Lear by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Ben Spiller
Cordelia by Farrah Chaudhry, directed by Louie Ingham
Derby-based theatre company 1623 “aspire to change people’s lives through Shakespeare”, their process being to re-work Shakespeare’s texts as encouragement to audiences to see Shakespeare differently.
Their latest project, Lear/Cordelia, billed as a pilot, experimental double bill, looks at two of Shakespeare’s most well-known, and tragic characters, and views them as two lives touched by dementia. Lear/Cordelia began development in 2013, via research, workshops and scratch performances, and is now on a small-scale tour with performances at Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre and Derby Theatre Studio.
Lear begins with an elderly man, asleep and alone on his armchair, possibly in a care home, receiving a visit from his daughter whom he doesn’t recognise initially. Shakespeare’s original text has been adapted to demonstrate, in a contemporary setting, how Lear’s gradual descent into madness can be diagnosed as dementia.
With the aid of Darius Powell’s effective multi-media visual displays, David Henry’s Lear gives a touching sense of the confusion and jumble of memory fragments. Key scenes, such as Lear’s three daughters claiming their love for him, echo in his head as shimmering images of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia speak to him via three screens around his room. As they fade in and out, sometimes he understands them, sometimes their words are repeated, fractured refrains.
Lear’s storm scene – “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” – now transfers to his shower, as angry clouds and rain are projected above him. Lear’s membership of the Conservative Party, together with his recall of a Bullingdon Club-style soirée provides light relief.
Cordelia (Gemma Paige North) as visiting relative, appears only occasionally, witnessing Lear’s changing physical and mental state.
Cordelia, a new play by 1623 associate artist Farrah Chaudhry presents Cordelia’s perspective on her father’s dementia. Cordelia helps her father pack his belongings as he prepares to move into a home due to illness. She appears to be there under duress, more out of duty than love, and is anxious to return to France and her role as a doctor, often working in war zones.
This play is less effective and imaginative than its partner and raised too many unanswered questions. There is no clear indication of what Lear’s illness is during Cordelia and Lear’s mainly combative exchanges, and although he has granted power of attorney to Goneril and Regan, this seems premature (although perhaps another way of indicating their manipulation of him).
More contrasts in light and shade would help in the dialogue, as Cordelia’s main emotional seems stuck on anger with her father always on the defensive. The dialogue is telling-heavy, giving the piece a static feel; more moments of dramatic tension would help, together with a stronger ending.
Aside from their names and place in Shakespeare’s story, it isn’t clear if there is any intended relationship between the two characters in the first and second plays. Different directors are named for each play; perhaps one director for both or joint director roles might assist with overall cohesion.
The company offers Lear’s Memory Box workshops for care homes, and with dementia-friendly (as this was) and BSL-interpreted performances at both venues, this project is taking care to reach individuals affected by this condition, as well as those working with dementia sufferers.
Overall, an intriguing project based on research, however, some adjustments to characterisation and dialogue in Cordelia would make for a more insightful and satisfying dramatic double bill.
1623 Theatre Company
Attenborough Arts Centre 14 – 15 October
Derby Theatre 18 – 19 November
Images via 1623 theatre Company