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115

So this is the way the Fringe ends, not with a bang but a Monday. It is Monday afternoon and three of the Big Four venues are still recognisably open, whilst the Underbelly and almost all of the Fringe’s medium-sized theatres are now in pieces. Every year I have to learn how to die again, and my crisis of a few days ago, when I had realised that I would be able to see only a fraction of the shows on my bucket list, has been since replaced with a kind of philosophical peace. I am happy to simply drink the last of the Fringe’s air. Enjoying a final coffee in the Gilded Balloon, or glaring at the sole remaining flyer girl outside the Pleasance Dome, are carried out in a spirit of adieu and with an almost stately self-consciousness.

It is in such a spirit that I go to watch Ronnie Dorsey’s new play “Queen Lear” at the Assembly Roxy (though this is actually my penultimate review), for it otherwise seems too late to feasibly overturn the critical consensus that her play is only interesting. We join Lear (Alice Allemano) before his gender reassignment surgery; he is pregnant with Cordelia and there are a lady of the bedchamber (Jane Goddard) and an, er, priest (Mary McCusker) in attendance. This spoils things, for I was joking about Lear’s gender (the Queen is his second wife) but not about the priest. It is a strange detail. Shakespeare’s King Lear has a strenuously pagan setting, with multiple characters appealing to the unresponsive “gods.” Dorsey’s references to holiness, and even (yikes!) a “parish,” have no apparent aesthetic recompense, and so in the end they just sound like puzzling anachronisms.

The play’s clarification that Cordelia has a different mother to her sisters is probably also a mistake. Cordelia’s loyalty to Lear now comes across as a genetic characteristic rather than a moral one. The more subversive irony of Cordelia’s devotion to the man who had destroyed her mother never really gets going.

Shakespeare’s Lear is here reimagined on a much smaller scale, as the chauvinist pig and domestic abuser from an earnest soap opera. He is depicted kicking his Queen’s lapdog, which is hardly the most sophisticated method of stressing a character’s immorality (with his ferocious militarism, this Lear has presumably done far worse things). The sense of dread which is inherent to the Queen’s position is powerfully conveyed, but she comes adorned in a glittering victimhood which appears incongruous or even anachronistic within Shakespeare’s world. Perhaps the sensibility of the wronged woman is inescapably Victorian. The mind behind Desdemona, Lady Macbeth and indeed Cordelia would have conceivably equipped such a Queen with a stronger character and a sharper tongue. You are inadvertently left with the conviction that this Queen has been left out of the original play for a reason.

I don’t want to grow gratuitous in my criticisms, but Allemano’s Queen doesn’t look pregnant – she is missing the stupefied stiffness of a genuinely pregnant woman. Yet this play otherwise sits very well visually. It evokes the mood of a pre-Raphaelite painting; there is a feel of potted grandeur and gaudy medievalism to it, but not necessarily one of a moving tragedy. As it develops, “Queen Lear” reminds me increasingly of the pre-pre-Raphaelite but still affiliated historical scene, “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” by Paul Delaroche.

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