King Lear – December 2007


By: WIlliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Company: RSC

Venue: New London Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th December 2007

This was a definite improvement on the Courtyard performance. For one thing, we could see what was happening on stage from the start, and although I didn’t get a headset, I found I could hear pretty much everything as well. There was one change to the cast that we noticed – Frances Barber was indisposed, and so we got to see Melanie Jessop play Goneril, which she did at the start of the run in Stratford but without being reviewed. I probably preferred Frances Barber, of the two, but this wasn’t bad at all.

Before I forget, I’ll just mention the palaver at the start, as about 400 women queued for about ten loos, causing the start to be delayed by a few minutes. This was why I didn’t get a headset, and God knows why we were sent into the auditorium from the wrong end of a very long row! Not the best start, but once the play got underway, I soon settled down to enjoy myself. I will also add that there was relatively little coughing, especially during the first half, although the mobile phones in the second half must have been unpleasant for those that heard them. (Four, according to Steve – I just caught the ice-cream van one near us.)

Enough of that stuff. The stage here was less thrust than in Stratford, and this suited the set much better – the action at the back wasn’t so far away. In addition, the open nature of the auditorium (more like Chichester’s main stage) made the action seem to come forward more. We were practically straight on to the centre of the stage, and got a really good view of everything.

The opening bit with Lear demonstrating spiritual as well as political leadership of his people was OK. It does set up his dominance, and also gets the opening characters on stage plausibly. I liked William Gaunt’s Gloucester in this – he’s well-meaning but gullible, and apart from Kent’s passionate reactions, he’s the main source for our emotional response to the way the King’s being treated. Or perhaps I should call him the ex-King, as his loss of power is very clearly demonstrated here.

We finally saw the speeches, as Lear stood at the lectern and used his cards to prompt himself. The court was obviously used to pandering to his every whim, and understood the need to flatter him, although the sisters were a bit unsure to begin with. I noticed this time that Cordelia stood at the back, didn’t give us her asides, and seemed to regard it all as a joke on her father’s part. Perhaps this explains her different relationship with him – her sisters know how unreliable he is and have suffered too much at his hands, while Cordelia indulges and is indulged. Boy, is she in for a surprise.

I didn’t see Regan reacting to the gift of territory this time – last time she was clearly thinking her portion wasn’t big enough; she’s a girl who always wants more. Cordelia still thinks it’s all a joke when she starts off at the lectern, but it all goes rapidly downhill when she doesn’t trot out the paean of praise her father expects. Her shock is clear, and was well played. I always like the bit where France takes up “what’s cast away” – sniff, sniff. After Cordelia’s “farewells” to her sisters (more like “drop dead, you bitches” in this performance), Regan and Goneril discuss the situation, and here it’s clear that Regan just hasn’t been attending those AA meetings. She snaffles not one but two drinks this time, the second on her way out.

The letter scene between Edmund and Gloucester was well done. I was even more aware this time that Gloucester had earlier come back on stage with France and Burgundy just as Kent is leaving to go into exile. His comments about the situation seem more pertinent because he’s only just caught up on events, and his use of an actual pamphlet to read out the predictions was a nice touch. Of course, the predictions are all going to happen, so it’s double fun to hear Edmund ridicule his father’s gullibility – partly because he’s right in general terms, and partly because he’s wrong as far as this play goes. Edgar, probably the only decent man in the play, made it clear that spending two hours in conversation with his father was a real snooze-fest. Ben Meyjes’s performance was just as good as I remembered from last time, with no significant changes that I noticed.

When Lear comes on with his cronies for his après-hunting drink before dinner, the rowdiness was either more than before or just more noticeable on the trimmed down stage. There seemed to be more interaction among the group during this scene than I remember, and the early signs of Lear’s madness are evident. Goneril didn’t react as strongly to his cursing, although she did still collapse, and the fool’s comments all came across clearly. “Nothing” is the key word of this play, and Lear’s response to one of the fool’s enquires echoes Cordelia’s “nothing” perfectly. He’s quite a good writer, this Shakespeare chap.

When Kent, in disguise, arrives at Gloucester’s place, there’s a party in full swing inside, and he’s waiting outside when Goneril’s servant arrives. Kent’s standing in front of the light, so naturally the other guy can’t see who he is, and the next thing he knows he’s being attacked, when he has nothing but his cowardice to defend him. Edmund takes a hand, and soon everyone comes out. Believe it or not, Regan doesn’t actually have a drink with her! But a tray with four goblets is brought out, and trust me, she has three of them.

I’ve just realised how Kent’s deliberate rudeness to this group both echoes and contrasts with Cordelia’s unintentional slight of Lear in the opening scene. Cordelia hardly says anything, Kent says plenty; she’s sent away, he’s put in the stocks. I do get Cornwall’s point, though; it’s easy enough for people to be rude and cover it up by claiming they’re just “plain speakers”, but then spin cuts both ways. Flattery can cover a multitude of sins as well.

From here it’s much as before. I keep recognising the validity of the sisters’ arguments – Lear has set up an almost impossible situation for them, and I’m not convinced even Cordelia would have been able to handle it, if she’d stayed. It’s often easier to be the one who comes in now and again, and who doesn’t have to put up with the daily grind of looking after an ageing parent. But of course they are two villainous bitches (apologies to any female dogs offended by that last comparison), and that was brought out fully in this production. It helped that Lear was relatively sympathetic – misguided and stupid, but not specifically malicious or monstrous. The sort of chap who was pampered and flattered as he grew up as heir to the throne, and never really got a sound grasp of reality, nor learned how to deal with setbacks. As long as everything went fine for him, he was easy enough to get on with, but woe betide anyone who crossed him, as he wouldn’t be able to handle it reasonably.

One other change I noticed was the way that Regan draped herself erotically against some poles when she gets a chance to be alone with Edmund. She whipped her coat off so quick she risked getting friction burns, and flung herself provocatively onto the prop, just before he turned round and saw her. Nifty work.

The fight between Edmund and Edgar looked a little weak this time, as if they’re getting a bit jaded. Some of the movements didn’t make sense, and didn’t seem to connect properly, and the energy wasn’t as focused. Kent’s departure at the end had him actually taking his gun out of his holster, an advance on last time, making it even clearer that he’s off to kill himself. In fact, I was half-expecting a gunshot off stage after Edgar’s closing lines – it would have added tremendously to the emotional impact at that point.

The whole production had a tremendous amount of detail, and all the performances were good, but the central part of Lear is key, and Ian McKellen’s performance was outstanding. I’ve already mentioned that this Lear was more sympathetic than most, but McKellen’s depiction of Lear’s emotional journey into madness was superb. It started early, was soundly based on Lear’s personality and developed in an intelligible manner, beautifully paced. It’s perfectly logical that he should strip off when he does (and it doesn’t hurt the box office).

As a general point, we find that Trevor Nunn’s productions are clear, decisive, and tend to the literal interpretation. For example, Lear’s comment at the end “and my poor fool is hanged”, which has been interpreted in various ways, is here demonstrated just before the interval, when Cornwall’s soldiers capture Gloucester and hang the fool. It’s a style of production that brings out a great deal of the plot and makes every line significant, and there’s much to commend it.

However, I still found myself not able to applaud for long afterwards. I did enjoy myself, and found it a very comprehensive and clear performance, with many individual highlights, and a strong sense of understanding the play, but I didn’t feel as enthused as for some Shakespeare productions. I’m very glad we saw it again, and from a better angle, as well as in a more supportive performance space, and I would recommend it to anyone (if you could get the tickets!), but I still felt a lack of connection somewhere – an intelligent but not necessarily a heartfelt production.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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