“Which of ewe shall we say doth love us most?” In King Lear, Shakespeare comments on the bestial nature of humanity by personifying animals and anthropomorphising humans. The eponymous hero loses his family — and his wits — in this cataclysmic tragedy where “man’s life is cheap as beast’s”. What could be more appropriate than casting actual sheep then? — as director Missouri Williams does in this totally triumphal creation. If this be madness, there is method in’t. And a lot of droppings.
Alastair Saksena takes to the stage as the play’s self-appointed director. Wincing, spluttering and fab-ewe-lously mad already, he tries, like a nervous supply teacher, to keep us entertained: “they’re usually so punctual… they know how to put on a good show”. His ovine co-stars boast some 37 film credits and awards between them, so even before they arrive, we know we’re in safe hooves.
They make a beatific entrance. You’d have to be Regan or Goneril not to be delighted by the spectacle of this flock, looking strangely sagacious in velvet and ruffs. Photography (sans flash) is permitted, and predictably we all extend iPhone-clutching tentacles. It’s not long before mutiny breaks out though. The sheep reject all direction from Saksena but still, their performances are golden. Cordelia, festooned with pink gauze like a contemporary four year old girl, deserves special praise for weeing nonchalantly as she is berated for being “so young and so untender”, one of many moments so perfect that it feels almost planned.
This King Lear is ingeniously spun together with Williams’s fleecy gimmick. Comments like “don’t worry, it gets worse” encompass both the tragic plot and the mounting mayhem on stage. It’s a whistle-stop tour of the play’s most iconic moments and Saksena propels the action manfully, demanding pyrotechnics to begin “the Heath scene” and ultimately clutching Cordelia and pronouncing her “dead”. (She writhes long-sufferingly and rolls her eyes throughout the denouement.) If only all Shakespeare productions were constricted to 40 minutes and comprised such an exceptionally engaging cast.
By Rosalind Stone
King Lear with Sheep is at the Courtyard Theatre, 40 Pitfield Street N1 6EU, 23 September-4 October. Tickets £12.50/£10. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.