November is often the battleground for the annual fight between those who say Christmas begins as soon as Halloween ends and those who want to put it off as long as possible. This year, the Bristol Shakespeare Festival provides something that can unite these groups. King Lear: The Musical has many elements of pantomime – the silliness, parodies of pop songs, a moment where you want to scream “she’s behind you” – that Christmas fans will be pleased, while not actually being a pantomime to satisfy the grinches.
King Lear is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. The villain feels too caricatured, too much happens off-stage and I find myself bored of the heroine. Thankfully, The Musical understands these downfalls and transforms them into something hilarious. Hannah Filer’s Edmund, the big bad of the play, took a predictable, monotone villain and transformed him into the highlight of the show through the power of intentionally bad singing and the arrogance of Draco Malfoy. The script was imbued with funny one-liners and fourth-wall breaks about the poor writing choice of bumping off characters off-stage, how various storms are clearly a metaphor and the futile attempts of scholars to find meaning in unnamed one-scene characters. The show even solved my apathy about main character, Cordelia, by giving me another heroine to focus on – her sister Goneril. I’ve never given much thought to the evilest of Lear’s daughters, other than to sigh when yet another powerful woman in Shakespeare becomes a pariah, but Astrid Bishop’s version makes me see the character in a new light. The show didn’t change her story, but, to the backing track of ‘Teenage Dream’ by Katy Perry, artfully pointed out that Goneril is one of the few to perform the Shakespearian Woman’s hattrick – to marry, go insane and die. This, plus Bishop’s incredible voice, had me rooting for Goneril and slightly wishing she had succeeded in her evil plan.
The best thing King Lear: The Musical has going for it is its humour. From the get go, the show is pulling laughs out of the audience – I’ve heard a lot of theatre reminders to turn my phone off but never to the tune of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ before. The most giggle-inducing moment comes in the second act when ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You’ becomes the soundtrack to two murders and the gouging of someone’s eyes – which are later likened to ping pong balls. Anyone still wishing it was Halloween would be happy with the level of gore in that scene.
In the spirit of being fair, it must be said that sometimes the singing did not quite hit the notes it should have and, often, the acting felt a like something from GCSE Drama. But I think this works for the type of show King Lear: The Musical was going for. No one goes to a pantomime for the acting or singing – we go for the fun and silliness. And this show was more than silly enough to make up for any performance shortcomings. What’s more, you cannot fault the cast for their energy. It was almost infectious. The show is also a great way to reimagine and understand Shakespeare. If they could do Titus Andronicus next, that would be really helpful, but whatever they do, I look forward to it.