King Lear – June 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th June 2007

This is a relatively new experience for me, having to commend a production for its performances and some interesting insights, and yet come to the conclusion that it was all rather dull. It was the same thing last night at The Seagull, both by the same director, so it’s probably down to his style of production. I just find it odd that I should be able to get so much out of the performances, and yet feel so unenthusiastic at the end that clapping all through the bows was an effort. I’ve seen a number of productions where I clapped and clapped till my hands were sore, and still went on – Coriolanus in the Swan springs to mind – yet here I felt nothing much, not elated, not wrung out, not inspired, not cheated……. nothing. It’s very strange.

The performance did get off to a really bad start from our perspective – literally. As the organ ground out a massive ceremonial tune, a procession of all the nobles entered, togged up to the nines. They swept to the front of the stage, and then fanned out, beautifully obscuring the view, almost completely in our case. Fortunately, when Lear came on, they all bowed, knelt, and some even prostrated themselves (as far as I could see, that is). He was got up in some fancy robes that were more akin to religious finery than royal garb, although there’s often only a skimpy line between the two. He waved his arms around as if giving a Papal blessing to everyone, and then most of them wafted off, leaving Kent and Gloucester to introduce the novices in the audience to the political situation, and to Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund.

Throughout the play, information about what was going on was very clearly delivered. I learned more about the plot than I’ve ever known before, and this opening scene was no exception. The only downside was that I didn’t get any real sense of embarrassment on Edmund’s behalf about the way his father refers to him. However, it was clear that Edmund got the point, and wasn’t too happy about things.

Next up is the division of the spoils of war. The war in question is a war of words amongst the three daughters of Lear – who can flatter Daddy the best? Sadly, like a TV quiz, the winner has been picked in advance, and both Goneril and Regan are playing off for the minor places. (And they know it!)

Let me describe as best I can the way this was staged. Various servants brought forward a table towards the rear of the thrust, while a couple of chairs were placed in the front corners. One of these was just in front of us. Then, as the royal family and nobles enter, Regan and Goneril are shown to the chairs, and sit there for most of the scene, wide skirts fanning out beautifully to block even more of the view. Their respective husbands stand behind them, adding to the effect. So I can only tell you from the later events, that there was also a lectern to the left of the table, and it’s from here that Lear reads his apparently prepared speech, from index cards, tossing them away after he’s finished with each one. It is also from here that Goneril speaks, invisibly, to her father, and receives his approbation. When Regan does her turn, with her husband there behind her, giving her encouragement, I could at last see what I’d been missing. Fortunately, Monica Dolan gave us an excellent Regan. Hesitant at first, she gathers pace after a glance at her husband, and smarms a smile onto Lear’s face – he’d been bored with her comparisons to her sister. When she comes over to see what she’s getting, there’s a lovely look of concern and nosiness on her face, and as she heads back to her chair, she’s pouting at what she obviously sees as an inadequate return for her efforts.

Cordelia was standing behind her father during all of this, so we don’t get her asides this time. She delivers her “Nothings” just fine, and Lear sends her packing, which in this case means off to the entrance on our left. I found the Burgundy/France scene moving, and had a few sniffles, as I often do. Lear’s rage was well done, and sets us up nicely for his coming madness, and his two elder daughter’s concerns for the future. Incidentally, Regan picks up on Masha’s fondness for a glass of something, as she’s the only one to take a cup of whatever celebratory drink was on offer. In fact, she’s rarely seen without a glass in her hand, which proves her undoing later.

Kent is banished before Gloucester returns, so there’s a look of puzzlement on Gloucester’s face as they pass on his way in. Cordelia says goodbye to her sisters, and they then confer, more cosily than I’ve seen before. The impression so far is of Lear as a tyrant, ruling with absolute authority and becoming subject to serious mood swings. If he looks angry, everyone ducks. The costumes suggest Russia. The only problem, and it’s the usual one, is that if Lear is so despotic, why is Kent so loyal? Or Cordelia, for that matter?  It weakens them both to be devoted to such a cruel King.

As the chairs and table are removed, we see Edmund, on all fours, close to the ground towards the back of the stage. As I dealt with my irritation from the early difficulties with the sightlines, I reckoned I would start to get involved with his first monologue. It’s usually entertaining to see a villain lay out his wares, and this was a good reading of the part. He winds up Gloucester beautifully. I realised that Gloucester wasn’t there when Kent was banished, so of course he’s muttering about that as he comes on. I also liked Edgar’s little yawn and look of boredom when he confirmed he’d spent a couple of hours in conversation with his father the previous evening.

Kent comes back on in disguise, and we get to see the rabble of knights that Lear has surrounded himself with, as they lollop on stage, baying and shooting and generally causing mayhem. I do have some sympathy for Goneril at this point. Yes, she’s a malicious bitch (look who brought her up), but it would drive anyone mad to have to put up with a geriatric lad-about-town and his accomplices. I noticed that her complaint to Lear was in incredibly formal language, and quite hard to understand – why, I wonder?

Now we get the first appearance of the fool. Sylvester McCoy was good, though not the best I’ve seen. A lot of the humour and criticism of Lear came across, but not all. As we might have expected, he gets to use his spoons. At least there were several knights with Lear, to suggest his large retinue. There are some early signs of madness, as Goneril rejects his demands and he heads off to Regan. Lear’s cursing of Goneril leads to something of an over-reaction from her, I felt.

The tiff between the messengers was OK, but nothing special. I noticed that Regan was still at the booze. The scene where Kent, in disguise, is put in the stocks was quite mundane, and didn’t get much across.

The rumblings of the storm start a little earlier than I remember happening before, and I enjoyed the lengthier build-up. Lear’s increasing loss of sanity is very well depicted, and Edgar was also very good as Poor Tom. I liked Lear’s recognition of the plight of the homeless, and his decision to strip off makes perfect sense. When Gloucester helps him, he brings him secretly back into his own home, against orders, and the first half ends with Gloucester, having just got the King away, being arrested by armed guards, and the Fool being hanged, just for fun. Good staging.

In the second half, when Gloucester sends off a servant to lock the dangerous letter in his closet, Edmund takes the key from the servant when he returns – he’s shaping up nicely as a serious villain. I didn’t look too closely at the blinding bit, but I did notice that Regan was squealing almost orgasmically as each eye was removed. She’s another nasty piece of work. She helps Cornwall off this time, rather than ditching him.

Edgar’s performance was very moving both before and during the discovery of his father’s fate. Gloucester’s eyes weren’t bandaged this time. Regan does her best to entice Oswald to give it up (the letter to Edmund, that is), and is well unhappy when he refuses.

Albany is a bit wimpish throughout. Edgar’s gulling of his father about the cliff felt a bit flat (like the ground itself!), though his caring for his father, and Gloucester’s acceptance of his situation came across clearly. I missed Edgar’s comments on the two old men chatting together, which were cut, but then their sufferings were plain to see. In Edgar’s fight with Oswald we start to see how he’s toughened up.

After the battle, the doctor is brought on with Lear and Cordelia, and leaves his medicine chest behind. Goneril spots this, and sits on it, carefully taking a bottle out of the top shelf and secreting it in her pocket. She then uses it to poison the bottle of champagne that she pours Regan a glass from. Will Regan drink it? Of course she will, she’s got as little restraint as Masha. Even when Regan’s doubled up in pain, and carried off by some guards, she’s not going to let go of that bottle!

The fight between Edgar and Edmund was very good. It took some time, and involved wrecking the stage, such of it as hadn’t already been trashed by previous events. I got the impression that Edgar had probably had some training in how to use a sword when he was younger, but didn’t really care for the sport. However, he’s changed enormously through his own suffering, and seeing what’s happened to others, especially his father, and now he’s ready to put his fighting skills to use. They’re pretty rusty, but they get him through. Edmund, of course, is a seasoned villain and swordsman, but just can’t overcome his unknown opponent.

Lear carries Cordelia on – she’s a tall girl, so Ian McKellen must be stronger than he looks. Kent actually heads off after his line about joining his master, lifting up the flap of his holster to get his gun out as he goes. Finally, we get the closing lines, and we can all go home. Hooray!

It’s a shame I found this production so uninspiring, but there were good performances and some interesting ideas. Better luck next time.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at