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Lear's Daughters
The Hope Theatre
11th December 2014

★★★★☆

Sophie Grant, Olivia Emden and Charlotte Quinney as the fool, Cordelia and Goneril

Photography provided by The Hope Theatre

The last time we saw Olivia Emden on stage, she was performing from inside a bathroom in one-woman show Sink. In Lear's Daughters, the action almost exclusively takes place in a kitchen. Honestly, the next time we see her, if she isn't in the conservatory with a candlestick, we'll be disappointed... But we digress.

This is a four-woman version of King Lear focussing on, well, Lear's daughters - the title gives it away. Footfall Theatre have taken one of Shakespeare's more unwieldy works and cut it down to what is essentially a story of three sisters trying to care for their elderly, ungrateful father, all whilst dealing with personal problems of their own. Throw in a bit of inheritance squabbles, and apart from the language (which remains in the Bard's English), this is a story more fitting of modern times.

The stage has been flipped round from its usual layout, with strings of Christmas cards, mince pies, a fir tree - it's recognisable as any family home at this time of year. Initially the three sisters are sat around a table, smiling, playing cards, then tensions erupt with Goneril (Charlotte Quinney) shouting the odds. She's the most dominant of the three, wearing trousers and acting aggressively here, contrasted by Regan (Kimberly Jarvis) with her more feminine dress and long pinned back hair, with Cordelia (Emden) somewhere between the two. The trio are clearly all very different people, with different ideas, and the sibling dynamic is perfectly captured.

Sophie Grant takes on the role of the Fool, here represented as a carer in a crisp uniform, pushing around an empty wheelchair. It's a smart move by director Isabelle Kettle, as it gives Grant a reason to be present in the majority of scenes, and yet remain detached from the action. She's there to support the family, but there's a certain professional distance. Grant has a wonderfully soulful, bluesy voice, and as she sings, her eyes glazed over, she delivers a haunting performance which captures all the pain and tragedy of Shakespeare's original piece. When all four women sing together in rounds, you half think it's worth the ticket price alone just for the music.

Those who have worked out that, like Lear, Gloucester doesn't appear on stage, won't be disappointed by the lack of violence that omission might suggest. This is very much one of Shakespeare's bloody tragedies and true to form, there's a horrifically visceral scene involving Regan and the fool. It may disgust you, it may put your off your breakfast the next day, but you won't be able to stop looking.

Putting the visuals to one side, if you aren't familiar with the piece the language does begin as somewhat inaccessable even for Shakespeare veterans. It will take you a little while to follow what's going on. However, the script has been hacked away to remove subplots and then more subplots - it's only an hour straight through - and that does make it far easier to grasp the narrative. Lear's Daughters is a bold adaptation which does still make sense following the edits and stands proudly on its own. It takes a lot of bravery to take on Shakespeare, and even more skill to win.

If the prospect of an all-female company taking a classic and repurposing it for their own ends sounds worrying, you're not alone in your fears. I must admit that I had reservations myself. However, Footfall Theatre have created a superbly intelligent and melancholic adaptation which puts the focus on strong women without compromising on the original text's intention or its sense of drama. Ignore all other labels: this is simply good theatre. If you missed it at this year's Edinburgh Fringe - or even if you didn't - Lear's Daughters is a production which will open your eyes to what can be done with an old text and an ambitious new company.

Lear's Daughters ran from 9th to 20th December 2014 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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