Jack Lear review – Shakespeare, shanties and a raging Barrie Rutter

Hull Truck
Dementia drama and Jacobean bloodbath sit uneasily alongside each other in a reworking of King Lear during the fishing industry’s dying days

They’re a hard-bitten lot, the Lear sisters. Brought up as “men daughters” by a trawlerman father who’d sooner have had boys, they are sour, truculent and stony-faced. In Ben Benison’s play, Nicola Sanderson, Sarah Naughton and Olivia Onyehara are a brutalised version of Shakespeare’s Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Bold and full-voiced, they hold the stage as forcefully as they deliver the playwright’s latter-day iambic pentameter. They’re a joy to watch.

Somewhere near the Humber in the dying days of the fishing industry, the ageing Jack Lear (“stinking rich and duck-arse tight”) has decided to split his fleet between his daughters in return for their hospitality. Despite Barrie Rutter’s guttural performance in the title role of his own production, it is the two older sisters who are Benison’s main concern.

Once Onyehara’s Victoria has rejected her inheritance, refusing to flatter her old seadog of a father, Sanderson’s Morgana and Naughton’s Freda take him in, only to tire of his heavy drinking and boorishness. Rejected, he heads to the tempestuous seas on a delusional voyage to recapture his glory days.

That leaves the field clear for Andy Cryer’s Edmund, a disco-loving charmer in a 70s safari suit, to ensnare Morgana and Freda in an adulterous triangle. In Kate Unwin’s design, a liberated Sanderson and Naughton swap their oilskins for the kind of dress worn by Alison Steadman in Abigail’s Party. From asexual waterproofs to flamboyant frocks, it’s hard to imagine a more extreme costume change.

Despite the Shakespearean blueprint, Benison’s play has more in common with the Ancient Greeks. First seen 10 years ago up the coast in Scarborough, it is awash with set-piece soliloquies, pugnaciously written if low on dramatic interaction. In adapting King Lear to a streamlined two hours, the playwright also leaves narrative strands pulling away from each other. Where Shakespeare relates Lear’s madness to a broader societal breakdown, Benison fails to connect Jack’s mental decline to the infighting that consumes the younger generation.

Dementia drama and Jacobean bloodbath sit uneasily alongside each other, even while the muscularity and playfulness of the performances – plus rousing a cappella sea shanties by Eliza Carthy – keep the production afloat.

At Hull Truck until 2 February. At Northern Stage, Newcastle, 12–17 February.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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