Lear review: a perfect balance of movement and text

John Scott and Valda Setterfield combine to dazzling effect, with warmth and humour

Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin


Choreographer John Scott doesn't do formality. He prefers puzzling ambiguity over hand-holding narrative. His dances are also never cloaked in theatricality, something he traces to backstage visits as a boy with his father, the lighting designer Leslie Scott. Afterwards, watching in the auditorium, the young Scott didn't see theatrical magic, but lights, smoke machines, pulleys and ropes in action.

Leslie died in 2013 and in Lear, John Scott has eschewed abstraction and embraced the formality and drama of Shakespeare's text to frame a heartfelt exploration of aging and shifting dependencies between parent and child. It's a constraint that he is not only happy to follow, perhaps as a nod to Leslie's career at the Abbey Theatre, but also one that he manages with aplomb. Scott's background as a singer also seeps into the structure, particularly in balancing word and movement: the text, like a recitative in opera, nudges the drama forward, while the dance serves as an aria, lingering and fore-fronting emotions.

Movement and text are perfectly balanced and executed magnificently by co-creator Valda Setterfield, an 82-year-old New York dance legend, playing Lear, and Ryan O’Neill, Mufutau Yusuf and Kevin Coquelard as Lear’s daughters. There are moments when Setterfield breaks out of character to advise the young dancers, adding another layer of poignancy and humour. Here she acts as elderly mentor, empowered by her experience, in contrast to earlier playing the part of a dependent parent whose telephone calls reveal helplessness in dealing with the local pharmacist or a water leak. This bitter-sweet emotional mix is part of dealing with elderly parents and is perfectly balanced throughout Lear. In the end John Scott lets Leslie have the last word: in interviews he mentions the smile and wave Leslie would always give when Scott left his nursing home, a gesture Setterfield gives to signal the last curtain call.