King Lear – February 2009

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Young Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th February 2009

The set was interesting, and needs to be described in detail. We were sitting just to right of centre, in the second row. The seats this time were in a wide horseshoe, with the entrance off to our left. At the back of the stage was a set of concrete steps, some chipped and worn, with grasses and flowers sprouting from them; the effect was something like a disused railway station. There was a doorway back left, and about halfway down on that side there was a platform area, big enough to contain a trapdoor. On the right, there was a broken-off tunnel entrance towards the back, and another entrance nearer ground level. A small door on that side gave access under the stairs. Centre front, and very close to the front row (which is why we sat in the second row), was a water trough, partly filled with water. A curved tap arched over the left hand side of the trough, while the right hand side had a wooden cover, allowing it to be used as a seat. The trough was also used for the stocks. In the opening scene, there was a throne sitting in the middle of the steps, and two plush chairs front left and right. Other furniture was brought on as required, though as most entrances involved steps, it must have involved a lot of planning.

I enjoyed some parts of this production, but not all, and some of the choices left me completely detached. To begin with, there was a mix of accents, mostly northern but with a couple of Irish as well. I found the actors’ delivery was sometimes weak, and this wasn’t always helped by the accents. The performances were mostly very good, and the relationships between the characters were clear and generally believable. I didn’t take to Edmund; with his Irish accent and lack of clarity he didn’t come across so well for me. The smaller parts were fine, but didn’t have much to do, and although I found Cordelia lacking in personality in the early stages, I was aware for the first time towards the end that she’s reluctant to speak to Lear because she doesn’t know how he’ll feel about her.

For the other characters: the fool (Forbes Masson) was excellent, very bitter and clearly getting through to Lear with his comments. He’s also got a lovely singing voice, which was put to good use several times. Goneril was very good. She came across as an older daughter who’s seen her father behaving badly for many years, and has learned to stay quiet and out of the way till his fit is over or he’s left the room, and that’s what she does. She was very still during the love competition, while the others were doing their stuff, and she mostly looked away, at the ground or occasionally at her husband. She’s about seven months pregnant(?), which gives greater emphasis to Lear’s curses later on.

Regan is clearly the middle daughter, jealous because she’s missing out on his affection, and determined to put on a show of being loving, presumably to try and win Lear’s attention if not his love. She starts up a chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” for Lear’s first entrance. Kent was OK, but didn’t come across strongly. He was wearing a dog collar (religious rather than canine), and neither of us could figure out why. I noticed in the scene with Gloucester, he didn’t have his disguising specs on, and when Gloucester refers to “poor banished Kent”, he realises this, slips them out of his pocket and puts them on discretely.

Gloucester himself was more bluff in manner than I’ve seen before, and the emotional changes didn’t come across as clearly as I’m used to – production rather than acting I suspect. On the whole, I got the impression that Rupert Goold didn’t want to be bothered with all that depressing emotional stuff that usually goes on in Lear, but he did want to have some splendid visual stuff instead, preferably gory and with a high yeugh factor. So for the blinding scene – and this is a first, me actually watching any part of this bit – the second eye was removed by Regan herself. Cornwall held Gloucester down while she pressed on the second eyeball with her manicured fingers, finally leaning forward and sucking the eyeball out with ferocity and for quite a long time. She then stood up and slowly, very slowly, moved towards the water trough at the front, mouth unmoving. At last she squirted the fake eyeball out of her mouth and collapsed over the trough, retching away. Pretty yeugh, for me and quite a lot of the audience. And there was more to come, though nothing can be quite as bad as that scene.

When Edgar comes forward promptly (for once) at the third blast of the trumpet (didn’t sound much like a trumpet to me, and the answering blasts on the siren seemed a bit unnecessary), he emerges from below the rear step with a Union Jack wrapped round his face as a mask, carrying a pole with a small yellow flag on it, and with two wooden swords tied to his waist with a twine belt. Edmund and Edgar then start their fight with these swords, but it’s a silly business, swatting each other’s swords like children, and it’s only when they discard the swords that the real fight begins. They grapple pretty viciously, and finally Edgar gets Edmund on his back on the ground. That’s when the swords come back into play. Or at least one of them. Edgar pushes the point of it into Edmund’s mouth to kill him. It’s unpleasant, it’s messy, and it doesn’t strike me as being an effective way of fatally wounding someone so that they’ll be around just long enough for the reconciliation, the (belated) warning about Lear and Cordelia, and some final words about the two dead daughters. But that’s just me. Anyway, they’d lost me on Edgar’s bizarre entrance, and didn’t manage to get me back again before the end.

Neither of us could figure out the reasoning behind that choice of wooden swords during the trip back to the hotel, though in the morning I realised that it might have been due to the use of modern weaponry in this production. How do you square the sudden use of swords when they’ve been brandishing various types of firearm all evening? Personally I don’t have a problem with that idea – people could still fight a duel with swords if they wanted to – but it’s the only idea I could come up with for that choice.

We had watched the Newsnight Review section on this production, and so we were slightly surprised tonight that certain things were different, particularly the loss of the three glass cases which had been used to demonstrate splitting the kingdom. Whether it was for practical or artistic reasons, these were replaced with three pieces of paper, or envelopes. That worked just as well, for me, and prevented the stage being cluttered up with unwieldy props.

There were a number of other interesting or unusual stagings. When Lear is out in the storm, and Gloucester rescues him, he takes them to a potting shed, where instead of a joint stool, we have two pot plants. The actual plants are removed, so only the pots are being put on trial. The bench in this shed is the one used when Gloucester is being blinded. (No need to go into that again.) Earlier, when Edmund is seducing his father to the dark side, it’s staged with Gloucester as the two lads’ trainer, sitting near the top of the steps while they do their exercises and Edgar goes for several laps of the theatre. During his time off stage, Edmund works on their father, and there are glances at Edgar as he goes by during this scene, with Edmund having to restrain the duke on Edgar’s final pass. Edgar is then conveniently present for Edmund to work on alone. This certainly has the advantages of showing us that Edmund is a risk-taker, and letting novices know who Edgar is, but I found it contrived, and as the idea wasn’t used again, it didn’t deepen my understanding of the characters nor the production.

The fool didn’t die in the storm or afterwards; this time he apparently gets to Dover. He’s with Lear in the awakening scene, dressed in a doctor’s white coat, but with his fool’s outfit underneath, his hat (coxcomb) in his hand, and still wearing his makeup. Well, they do say that laughter’s the best medicine. So when Lear is mourning, amongst other things, that his “poor fool is dead”, it’s likely he also has been hanged for being on the losing side.

The storm scene was an unusual combination of music, movement, water and dialogue. Lear used a microphone – there was another one during the “who loves me best” scene – and he is carried on by the cast, initially held aloft and then lowered to the ground. There’s a fine mist of water coming down over the steps where all this takes place, the music is very loud, and what with the cast doing some slow and impenetrable mime or dance during all this, I completely lost the lines and any sense of what was going on, intellectually or emotionally. It may have looked good, temporarily, but so much was lost that I would have to rate this as the worst staging of the storm scene that I’ve experienced. The water, by the way, ran onto the floor space, but didn’t get anyone else wet. And Goneril went into labour at this point, clutching her belly and having to be helped off (I think). When she turns up back home to discover the news about Cornwall being dead and the war about to start, she’s pushing a pram, so the birth was successful, and the baby is soon picked up by Albany – he’s more maternal than Goneril, especially in this production.

At the end of the second section – we had an interval and a pause tonight – Cordelia appears at the back with a soldier, and they do a slow-motion thing, backlit, to show that she’s arrived. OK, but didn’t do a lot for me. The early scenes with Lear’s unruly knights were a bit lacking in the knight department, and in general there was more of the domestic about this production than others I’ve seen. Regan is poisoned by a strawberry French fancy, the only one on the plate (the others are chocolate).

So to the main event, as it were, the central performance itself. Pete Postlethwaite is a tremendous actor, and his performance didn’t disappoint. I felt the production hampered it occasionally, but it still shone through, filled with an intelligent understanding of the human experience and the talent to show us lots of small details in what is a huge performance. The production choices meant that this was more of a working-class Lear, a family man who doesn’t understand what family’s about, and who shows remarkably little interest in his future grandchild, though perhaps grandparenthood only kicks in for some people when the baby’s actually born. His erratic behaviour is corroborated by his daughters’ different responses to him. Certainly, they have different personalities, but their attitudes have been shaped by long years with a temperamental man, who can shower affection one minut, and be a block of ice the next. The set implies that Lear hasn’t been a very good king – everything seems to be going to rack and ruin, and Lear’s comment about not having cared enough for the poor compliments this. Despite this, we have Kent and Gloucester, both of whom are loyal and also surprised when Lear banishes Cordelia. This is always a puzzle, and I felt this production didn’t even attempt to provide an answer. Which is fine, though it doesn’t add to my understanding of the play.

Lear was suitably full of himself at the start, all jolly and looking forward to the wonderful things his daughters were going to say about him, especially Cordelia. He brought on the microphone stand himself, and set it up to the left on the lower steps. Goneril was slow to get started, but did her best, Regan had to think for a bit to outdo her sister, and Cordelia, sitting on the trough, gave us all her asides by leaping into the middle of the stage. Lear’s rage at her refusal to play his game was good, and by throwing the last envelope on the floor, we could enjoy a little tussle between Cornwall and Albany about who gets it first.

Lear’s anger when returning from hunting to find all is not at it should be, came across as bluster more than real rage. He’s so used to being obeyed that he doesn’t know how to handle disrespect. Another sign of a decadent kingdom, when he hasn’t even had any opponents to deal with. As I’ve said, the fool was very bitter this time, and Lear does take his points on board, starting to realise that he’s done a foolish thing. His cursing of Goneril is perhaps more powerful with her being pregnant, but as the text doesn’t include her pregnancy, it actually lost some power for me because the obvious bump in her middle wasn’t being referred to explicitly. She holds it together well while he’s there, but she’s clearly shaken by it.

His descent into madness during the storm was obscured by the effects and music, sadly, though I did find it moving at times, and entirely believable. Later, at Dover, with Gloucester saved from himself, Lear appears in a woman’s front-buttoning dress, a floral print with a low V-neck. It’s very fetching, and sets the tone for the following conversation with Gloucester, which was more humorous in this production than I’ve seen before. It was still an emotional experience, mainly due to Edgar’s comments, but there’s always a risk that too much humour will lighten the mood so much that the darker elements don’t get a chance, and I think that happened a little bit here. Lear has been banging away at his crotch during some of his rants, and just before Gloucester asks to kiss his hand, Lear realises he’s produced some unfortunate substance from his nether regions, and gives it a wipe first.

The rest was all fine, and Lear died on the upper steps, with support from some other characters and Cordelia in his lap. The final lines were OK, though as I say I was out of the loop by that time, and they were running late, but the final touch was a nice one. I was very aware that with the birth of Goneril’s baby, there was now a proper heir to the crown, not the usual situation in this play. Albany’s request to Kent and Edgar, now Duke of Gloucester, to rule the country is therefore asking them to be regents rather than joint kings, and the final sound of the play is that of a baby crying. And why not, given the world his elders have left him?

Ultimately this was a patchy version of the play, with some good ideas and some less than helpful stagings. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and perhaps I won’t be so squeamish about the blinding scene in future – it’s unlikely I’ll ever see anything more unpleasant than this one.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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