Last month, stage veteran Timothy West played a King Lear at the mercy of powerful women in Bristol Old Vic’s production of Shakespeare’s most brutal tragedy

Bristol Old Vic photographs by Simon Annand and Jack Offord

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A new chapter for the Bristol Old Vic theatre has begun as it opens up its back stage spaces to house a temporary bar and box office, whilst the front of house and studio theatre undergo extensive renovations. The audience is now invited into the building near the stage door, and already it feels like a more cutting-edge and urban theatre, in line with its exciting programming.

To begin this phase in the theatre’s history Tom Morris has directed a new production of King Lear using a cast of past and present students of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. The majority of parts are taken by current students, sometimes two per part with alternate performances using different actors in the same role.

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Alongside them are three established British actors, all ex-students of the school – Timothy West plays Lear, Stephanie Cole is the Fool, and David Hargreaves is Gloucester.

It’s a brutal and moving telling of the story, and whilst there is no shying away from the physical and emotional violence that runs through the play, this King finds much comfort in the tender friendship with his gentle, fond and probing Fool. The unusual choice to cast a woman in this role – and one seemingly close to Lear’s own age – as well as the presence of a female doctor with him for much of the play, works brilliantly.

He is often a solitary male figure surrounded by women who seem to control and direct his life.

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Watching the three experienced performers alongside so many at the beginning of their careers makes the inter-generational conflict in the play all the more acute. And despite his power and command as an actor, once the storm hits there is something extremely moving about seeing an 81-year-old Timothy West playing a King who braves the extreme elements.

There is a sense of true danger as a man who really could be destroyed by the forces of nature is intent on defying them and steps out into the wilderness.

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In the secondary story, the care and love shown to Gloucester by his son Edgar shines in the beautifully-played scene when the loyal son guides his blinded father to an imaginary cliff to jump from. This is in stark contrast to the scheming plans of Edmund, which he shares unashamedly with the audience.

This is a production which really does find its drama in the relationships between children and their parents. The driven, fiery and focussed needs of the young generation contrast with the high-status but powerless state of the older characters.

Anna Orton’s set cracks and crumbles as Lear’s world falls apart and the conflict in his family and country deepens. This leaves the huge upstage area exposed for the second half of the play, making both Lear and Gloucester’s journeys feel more dangerous as their vulnerable figures are set against the vast area.

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The production makes good use of the theatre’s original sounds effects, with the large wooden drums of the wind wheel and rain machine manually turned to accompany the storm in full view of the audience. Acapella singing from the company becomes hypnotic and threatening as the tragic end draws near.

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Amongst all the demolition and architects’ plans in this fast developing and historic theatre (it’s just celebrated its 250th birthday), time stands still for this powerful telling of King Lear’s demise.

Something unique and important happens on a very human and intimate level in the auditorium – between the actors, between the actors and the audience, and between members of the audience too. The standing ovation for this excellent cast and creative team was well deserved.