There’s nothing like Shakespeare (or an adaptation) to make you remember why you fell in love with words in the first place. Or theatre. Jack Lear, a northern twist (on what’s seen as Shakespeare’s best tragedy) King Lear doesn’t just rely on the timeless language. This gritty production written by Ben Benison shifts the action to the banks of the River Humber, complete with atmospheric folk music by the award-winning Eliza Carthy. Brought to the Northern Stage by Hull Truck Theatre, this is a passion project by director and actor Barrie Rutter OBE, who first played Jack Lear ten years ago in Scarborough.
You don’t need to have studied King Lear at school or seen previous productions to understand the action (thankfully), and don’t expect to nod off through drawn out soliloquies. The characters are over the top, the monologues short and snappy and I laughed a hell of a lot more than I expected to. If you’re new to it, then here’s a synopsis. Well-off trawler man Jack Lear is nearing retirement from a life on the seas and is preparing to hand over his fleet to his trio of daughters. Morgana and Freda are more of your typical fishwives (was trying to find a more polite adjective), desperate for freedom from this tough masculine world. Vic, the youngest has managed to avoid becoming as jaded as her two older sisters. Greed, envy and deception creep in as Jack divides his property between them, the legal work being carried out by sleazy solicitor Edmund. It’s clear from the get-go that it’s all going to end in tears (and more than likely bloodshed).
The deliciously creepy Edmund
What struck me from the beginning was the use of Norse mythology, talk of gods and goddesses – Odin, Thor and Freya which added a richness to the story, and the beguiling sea shanty melodies by Eliza Carthy (who joined the cast on stage at the end). There was no need for elaborate staging as the performances are so big (some trawler nets and buoys strategically placed around the stage was enough). Morgana and Freda (addressed as Morgan and Fred by Jack, I’m guessing he would have preferred sons) are larger than life (excellent, passionate performances by Nicola Sanderson and Sarah Naughton), with strong Hull accents and an even stronger desire to leave the maritime world behind. I loved the scene where they’ve chucked aside their “oilskin frocks and thigh-high boots,” storming onto the stage in floaty dresses carrying a candelabra and Calla lilies. This interesting sibling relationship includes sword-fighting and tossing around a large ball of fish waste.
Jack and his daughters chew the fat
They’re hilarious and bolshy alone but things heat up when they both get the hots for dodgy lawyer Edmund (the exceptional Andy Cryer). The sister’s rivalry is stormier than the North Sea to put it mildly. Somehow Vic (a polished Olivia Onyehara), the youngest sister has managed to avoid becoming so hardened to life but upsets her father by choosing love over her family. Jack is, as you would expect, set in his ways, a product of a hard life at sea and fond of a drink – Barrie Rutter’s passion for the material is obvious and you can tell that he’s the heart and soul of the production. Before the end of Act I, you’ll laugh and squirm at Edmund’s plan to seduce both older sisters before we find Jack all at sea in a perilous storm wanting to end it all, the rest of the cast adding to the tension with the aid of a drum kit.
Jack (Barrie Rutter) battles the sea
Act II begins with another atmospheric sea shanty before we discover that Edmund has married Freda and Morgana is happy to be his mistress. Vic lets on to Freda and the wheels are set in motion for chaos and violence. I also love the flashback to when the three daughters were children and Jack tells the story of Loki and Odin. Then we find him in the nursing home (you can guess who’s put him there) talking about the history of mistletoe. His impassioned speech about ageing is moving and eloquent. Meanwhile Edmund is in the mood for dancing in a 70s disco scene which is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Jealously leads to murder and bad blood. All Jack wants in the end is to enjoy himself out on the town and be a “three day millionaire,” but as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, we know that a happy ending isn’t on the cards.
Jack and his brood
I was struck by the quality of the acting and soliloquies, the rib-tickling humour, the thread of local history which weaved it all together and the beautiful music which took the production to the next level. Don’t miss it!
Jack Lear is at Northern Stage until 16th February. Book tickets here. The production lasts approximately two hours including a twenty minute interval.
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