I’m not gonna lie. King Lear has always been one of my least favourite Shakespeare tragedies. I was tempted to give its Big Finish Classics production a miss. But I was like, if anything can make me like King Lear, it’s a David-Warner-starring, Barnaby-Edwards-directed, Nicholas-Pegg-adapted Big Finish version. So I gave it a go.
I’m sorry to say I still don’t really like King Lear. Unlike Shakespeare’s best tragedies, where you feel for complex, interesting, otherwise admirable people, everyone in King Lear comes across as dumb, mean, or dumb and mean. I can’t sympathise with a guy who divides his kingdom up among his largely despicable daughters, but has to have one final ego trip first. And compare the villains of the piece to Hamlet’s Claudius: Claudius is a fascinating character; Edmund is just nasty. Whereas the “good guys” here are absurdly credulous. The plotting has never worked for me either: Hamlet and Macbeth are stories that feel like they inevitably move toward a tragic downfall, every step moving along the same path (pirate jaunt in Hamlet aside). The plotting in King Lear meanders just like its title character does across the countryside; it feels like people move around at random. The story of Edmund, Edgar, and Gloucester seems grafted in from a completely different story.
All this is to say, I found the Big Finish version of King Lear just as tedious as every other version of King Lear, but I don’t think it’s Big Finish’s fault. David Warner does a great job as Lear, capturing the king’s pomposity and humanity. His turn in Lear’s giant storm speech is being rightly praised, but what really worked for me was every scene between Lear and his daughters. Warner brings out that sense of a once proud man being worn down by the callousness of family, but also… his family is kind of right. He is an obnoxious houseguest.
Speaking of which, the casting of his daughters was excellent. I don’t know Finty Williams from anything, but she does a good, earnest Cordelia. The real standouts are Louise Jameson and Lisa Bowerman as the evil sisters, Goneril and Regan. It’s nice to hear these longtime Doctor Who heroines get to play at evil, but they also inject their characters with some real depth and humanity. These are awful people, fully realised. Jameson and Bowerman have greater range than Leela and Jackie, Bernice and Ellie let them show.
I did find that a lot of the male characters blended together, but I don’t know if that’s the casting’s fault, or Shakespeare’s, for populating his play with tons of people I don’t care about. Barnaby Edwards is usually good value for money, but Barnaby Edwards doing a French accent doesn’t sound like a real person to me, he just sounds like Barnaby Edwards doing a French accent. It’s probably a good one, but he’s got too recognisable a voice to this longtime Big Finish listener to pull it off. (He first appeared in 1998’s Professor Bernice Summerfield: Beyond the Sun, fact fans. 20 years ago!)
The sound design is good and epic — the stomping horses of the battle scenes, for example, are intense, and the kind of thing I’m surprised we don’t hear more of on audio, given its supposed limitless effects budget. If you like King Lear more than I do you might get a lot more out of it. But to me, it’s a strongly executed production of Shakespeare’s least interesting tragedy.
Hamlet (by William Shakespeare; starring David Warner) was released by Big Finish Productions in October 2017.