Pennington’s marvellous Lear “like some demented Jeremy Corbyn” at Cambridge Arts Theatre

King Lear is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this month

King Lear is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this month - Credit: Archant

A female soldier stands centre stage, aims her rifle at the audience and fires. This is the startling, if puzzling, opening of the new production of King Lear. The shooter is in fact Cordelia, the young daughter of the mythical monarch of Britain. She will (spoiler alert!) come to a sticky end as do all but two of the characters in Shakespeare’s very strange, very dark, very long play.

It takes seconds before the real play gets going on full and noisy charge. Lear, played by one of our greatest actors, Michael Pennington, bestrides the stage as a once-powerful king who is dangerously past his sell-by date. If you are not familiar with the play, it may be wise to check the synopsis before launching into its undoubted complexities. Things are made easier by the cast’s crystal clear diction though it has to be said, there is an awful lot of shouting to negotiate.

Pennington alone is worth the ticket price. White-bearded and shambling like some demented Jeremy Corbyn, he captures Lear’s profound inner torments: furious at the coldness of his daughters, raging against his growing physical and mental decline. This is not an easy watch.

The set, all gaunt drapes, brutalist concrete walls and dark spaces, perfectly sets the tone of Shakespeare’s brilliant exploration of human folly. There is a terrific storm scene that was genuinely scary and some really convincing stage fights.

Pennington, wonderful at conveying the sad pain behind the outward smile, is well supported by Pip Donaghy as the blinded Gloucester. That said the sheer power of these two actors seem to suck some of the life out of the others. The three daughters of Lear aren’t nasty enough (OK their 1930s costumes make them look like figures from a Noel Coward play), Edmund, the chief baddie (Scott Karim) is not hateful enough and the complex warring plot often was obscured by injudicious doubling up of parts.

But those caveats aside, Pennington was marvellous, maybe not the greatest Lear of our generation but certainly up there in the running. You weep for his character and realise all too powerfully that Cordelia’s bullet is for him.