King Lear isn’t my favourite Shakespeare play, but when I found out that Brian Blessed was going to be starring in a production in Guildford I just knew I had to buy a ticket. Guildford Shakespeare Society performed the play in the town’s Holy Trinity church, and the audience eagerly anticipated Blessed’s arrival on stage.
Only we had a bit of a shock – the actor collapsed a minute into the play, rising from his throne and falling to the floor in a move that led some of us to momentarily wonder if it was part of the play. After it became apparent that it was not, we waited with bated breath to find out if he was okay. Half an hour later, he returned to complete the performance. I was incredibly impressed: it would have been entirely understandable if the show had been cancelled, or at least cut short, but no, Blessed carried on until the end.
His initial scenes were hesitant, halting: obviously trying to maintain his presence and authority in the face of worry and some weakness. The thing is, it really worked: Blessed created an entirely believable Lear who recognised his powers were waning yet was reluctant to fully acknowledge this. As the play went on, he grew in confidence and by the second act it was impossible to tell that the actor had suffered any illness.
Having said all that, it would be unfair to suggest that Blessed’s strong performance was owing to his illness. While his famous bellow was in evidence – most notably during the powerful storm speech – he didn’t overdo it, instead giving a memorable performance emphasising Lear’s changes in temper and his enveloping madness. His quiet grief at the death of Cordelia was deeply moving.
The actor was ably supported by a strong cast. His daughter Rosalind Blessed was excellent as a confident, sexual Goneril, while Sarah Gobran was good as Regan. Emily Tucker did well with the combined roles of Cordelia and the Fool, while I liked the touch of making Gloucester into an astrologer, surrounded by books and charts in the church pulpit.
I’ve seen better productions of King Lear before, and I’m sure I will again. But I imagine few will affect me as emotionally as this one did.