King Lear – October 2011

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Ian Brown

Company: West Yorkshire Playhouse

Venue: Quarry Theatre

Date: Saturday 1st October 2011

Both Steve and I were torn between giving this production a 7/10 or 8/10 rating. The central performance was very good, the set was dramatic but didn’t get in the way and there were several interesting choices in the staging, but the performance as a whole didn’t have a sparkle to it yet – it’s still early in the run – and the audience wasn’t as responsive as we felt they could have been, which held the rating back. Still, we were very happy to have visited this venue, a larger scale Minerva in many ways, and we’ll definitely come back for more.

The set for the first half was basically a large box with two sides, which were at an angle to the steeply sloping base. A bright red carpet slashed diagonally across the floor from the door in the centre of the left-hand wall to the front of the stage. A sword was stuck into it near the front of the slope, Excalibur-like, and a throne sat on the edge of the carpet, facing back into the box. During the storm scene, this box rotated, with Lear declaiming most of his lines atop one of the walls, until we were faced with the back side of the opening set. The gap under the sloping floor became the entrance to the shelter which Gloucester leads them to, and the interval came after Lear and Kent have left for Dover. With the box rotated, I could see the thunder sheets at the back of the space, which fitted very well somehow – they certainly didn’t distract me. The costumes were a hybrid of modern dress with Elizabethan references – the royal family wore bright scarlet, like the carpet, while the rest wore more sombre colours, with the men mainly in military outfits.

For the opening scene, the court entered through the door and took up their positions, and then Kent marched down to the front to start the play with his lines to Gloucester. Edmund was as happy as usual to be introduced as a bastard – i.e. not much – and James Garnon did very well with this role throughout. When Lear arrives – no tricks this time – both Cordelia and the fool are with him, with the fool carrying a stool to sit on. It’s rarely done this way, which is fair enough since the fool isn’t included in the stage instructions, but it does allow us to see him as a character close to the king, as someone who cares deeply for Cordelia, and it gives an added emphasis to his jibe at the king, ‘can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?’ when we know he was there at the time Cordelia said that fateful word. I found myself sniffling in advance at the thought of it. Anyway, the fool sat on his stool beside the throne for most of this scene, saying never a word, but Richard O’Callaghan made us aware of his feelings at the important moments, without stealing any thunder from the speaking parts.

Lear came across as very controlling and peremptory in this scene, taking a moment to decide who would ‘attend my lords of France and Burgundy’, pointing to where he wanted the map placed, etc. His face looked pretty stern, except when he looked at Cordelia of course. He even smiled a bit at the ridiculous flattery that Goneril and Regan came up with. Each of them knelt behind the sword and kissed its hilt before speaking. Goneril (Neve McIntosh) looked nervous, and had to force the words out. Lear indicated her portion by holding his arms over the map along the relevant boundaries. Regan was more of a saucy minx, well prepared to flatter and deceive, and it was during her efforts that I saw how ludicrous this situation was. No one in their right minds could believe what these women were saying, which is why I reckoned that this Lear is crazy from the start of the play; I watched carefully to see how this would develop.

Regan looked distinctly unimpressed with her portion, though she kept the sulks off her face until her father’s back was turned, and then it was Cordelia’s turn to make a speech. She had stood to one side during her sister’s speeches – her asides were included – and then simply stood behind the sword, didn’t kneel, didn’t kiss it, and took a little time to come out with her ‘nothing’. Lear’s rage was not the strongest I’ve seen, but it was enough to explain the nervous looks on both Goneril and Regan’s face throughout this scene. He ripped the map in two to split his kingdom between Albany and Cornwall, and left his coronet hanging on the hilt of the sword. A lot of Burgundy and France’s lines were cut – well actually there were a lot of cuts or they couldn’t have managed the whole play in just over three hours – but I specifically noticed that Cordelia was no longer Lear’s ‘best object’, though she was the ‘balm of your age’, while all she said was ‘peace be with Burgundy’ after her first suitor rejects her. So we got the bulk of the play, but lost some of the detail – fair enough.

The fool came over to mime his farewell to Cordelia, and then the sisters have their little conversation before sweeping off stage. Steve reckoned that Lear had difficulty remembering Regan’s name when it was her turn to speak, but I didn’t spot that. Lear was certainly hesitating before some words tonight, which we took to be an aspect of the character’s age and not any lack on the actor’s part.

Edmund’s little chat with the audience was well done, but this was where I first noticed the lack of response from the audience. Lear certainly isn’t a comedy, but there can be a lot of humour at times, mainly from Edmund as he shares his villainous intentions with us. This audience just wasn’t getting it most of the time, which held things back a bit. Bernard Lloyd was good as Gloucester, while I was looking forward to Sam Crane’s performance as Edgar, as we’d enjoyed his Rodorigo in Othello at the Globe back in 2007. This performance was also pretty good, apart from one section, and got off to a good start in this early scene.

The relationship between Goneril and her steward Oswald came across as significantly more personal in this production. Looks were exchanged, and there was some intimate contact too, as Goneril grabbed him by his belt to drag him off stage at one point. When Edmund comes on the scene, Oswald’s seriously miffed, though not enough to let Regan see Goneril’s letter to Edmund later on. He does toy with the letter, though, as if he’s considering opening it himself. His rudeness to Lear was accompanied by some gesture such as slicking back his hair, which perfectly suggested the ‘weary negligence’ ordered by Goneril. The relatively small scale of this production meant that Lear couldn’t have many companions at this point, but it was clear that he’d lost even the few he had a short while later. Kent’s disguise involved shaving his head and putting on a Northern accent – sufficient for this play, but only just. The fool’s bit of doggerel – ‘Have more than thou showest’ – was done in mime to one of the attendant lords, with appropriate gestures for those of us who know the lines. Lear grabbed Goneril and threw her on the ground when he was cursing her. Albany’s closing line, ‘well, well, the event’ had me wondering if this was a misprint – what on earth does it mean in the context of the scene? Perhaps some genius will emend it for us in the future.

Lear’s madness was coming along nicely as he talks with the fool, and I noticed a turning point in the next scene. He’s unable to guess the answer to the fools’ first riddle – ‘Thou canst tell why one’s nose stands i’ the middle on’s face?’ – but later he comes up with the correct ‘reason why the seven stars are no more than seven’. This suggested to me that with his certainties beginning to crumble, he’s seeing the world from new perspectives. The emotional upheaval is causing him great distress, of course, but his mind is starting to grasp new ways of understanding the world, and this came across more clearly later on.

After Edmund has sent Edgar on his way, he wounded himself in the side. Sadly, no one seems inclined to give him any sympathy – they hardly notice his wound at all. In fact, they hardly notice him at all, as he kneels at the side of the stage, so he grabs his opportunity to get more involved with his claim that Edmund was one of the riotous knights who attended the king.

With this group moving inside Gloucester’s home, Kent and Oswald have their little argument. I liked that Kent has only a dagger, while Oswald has a sword, yet even so, Kent is winning their fight easily until the Duke and others emerge to find out what the noise is about. Edmund held his sword to Kent’s throat and took his dagger, which he then gave to Oswald. We wondered if anything more would come of that, but we didn’t spot anything. Kent is put in the stocks to the left of the stage, and reads Cordelia’s letter by moonlight. I forgot to mention that there was a large full moon behind the box, which moved from the left to the right during this first half – at this point it’s on the right of the stage.

The text has Edgar explaining his choice to become Poor Tom at this point; I’m not sure if it was fitted in slightly differently tonight or not. I was very aware that he can’t get away – the countryside is being searched, and the ports are guarded, so his only chance to avoid capture is to disguise himself.

Back at Gloucester’s place, Lear turns up with his minimalist entourage (i.e. the fool). This was another interesting stage in his developing insanity. As the rage mounted, he would suddenly calm himself again with reasonable arguments, only to flare up into another angry outburst when he sees Kent in the stocks. When Kent is freed, Lear looks like he’s going to have a tantrum again, but again breaks it off. He’s all lovey-dovey with Regan, thinking that she’s the loving daughter he expects her to be, until she makes it clear that she doesn’t consider Goneril to be in the wrong in this situation. It’s clear that all these changes of mood aren’t helping Lear to keep his balance, and that he’s finding it harder and harder to stay rational. His threats to his daughters taper off, and as he leaves, he’s clearly becoming seriously deranged.

Now, while I admire all the wonderful effects that can be achieved on the modern, fully equipped stage, I have a sneaking fondness for those productions which don’t go down the reality route, but instead opt for a simpler staging which allow us to enjoy the actual dialogue and the actors acting, without drowning out the words or drowning the stage. So this storm scene was a real pleasure. Instead of a downpour we simply had the thunder effects, and acting! Lovely.

Lear appeared at the top of the right hand wall of the box, and spoke most of his lines from there, while the box itself slowly revolved. The fool stayed on the stage, creeping round the outside of the box, trying to find shelter. I felt this speech had an unusual sense of freedom, as if Lear is actually coming to terms with his madness, and even starting to heal. As the box came round, and Kent reappeared, we could see the steps he’d climbed up, and as he started to engage with the others, he came down to join them.

I forget whether the short scene between Gloucester and Edmund was interposed here, but it was well done whenever it happened, and then we were back on the heath with the mad king. Poor Tom was wearing more clothes than is fashionable nowadays, and was suitably dirty and wild-looking. Lear’s obsession with his daughters, and insistence that Poor Tom’s suffering is due to ungrateful daughters, was hard to watch at times, and again the king hardly removed any clothes at all on ‘unbutton here’.

After another short scene between Edmund and Cornwall – Edmund’s still pretending to be a nice boy, the sort you’d want your daughter to marry – Lear and his companions are brought by Gloucester into a room, through the gap under the sloping floor of the stage. They only have a mattress and a stool with them, and the scene was seriously cut. The fool mimed the drawing of the bed curtains beautifully, and Lear actually mimed pulling one to the side when he’s telling them ‘we’ll go to supper i’ the morning’. I noticed that Lear’s interest in Poor Tom has led him to ignore the Fool; the two of them sang a little song at one point, and I gathered from the Fool’s reaction to Tom joining in that he felt his position was being usurped. When Kent and Gloucester take Lear away, the Fool stays behind, lurking in the shadows, and hears Edgar’s final comments before his departure. The Fool then has some lines of his own – pinched from somewhere else – and leaves in a different direction.

They took the interval at this point, and when the second half started the set had been completely changed. Instead of the box, there was now just a sloping semi-circle across the middle of the stage at a slight angle, and a chair in front of it with menacing-looking straps. We all know what comes next, don’t we?

I didn’t watch too closely for the next scene, so can’t report in detail on the staging. I suspect I wasn’t alone. Still, I got the gist, and in this version Regan helps her husband off stage – not always the case. The following scene, when Edgar meets his newly-blinded father, was the one time when I felt Sam Crane’s performance was a bit weak. His Edgar came across as rather effeminate and wobbly during this scene, which was off-putting, but to his credit he managed to recover the part to become a believable opponent for Edmund during the sword fight.

Edgar’s deception of Gloucester on the cliff at Dover was moving, as was the scene with Lear. Again, I felt that Lear had gained a lot of wisdom, but was still slipping into fantasy land occasionally. When Lear is woken in the French camp, the king of France is there as well, and responds to Lear’s question ‘Am I in France?’, a nice touch.

Again, the audience seemed resistant to the humour inherent in Edmund’s soliloquy about which sister to have once the battle’s over. When they return victorious, there’s a servant standing at the front of the stage holding a tray with goblets of wine. We can clearly see Goneril putting the poison into one of the cups, with the connivance of the servant, and soon Regan is feeling unwell. The fight was fairly short, with both men wearing fencing masks. Edmund grabbed Edgar’s a couple of times, and I thought it might have come off, which added to the suspense. It didn’t, of course, but it was good fun.

The final section, with Lear’s death, was moving. When Kent realises Lear is not going to recover and be king again, and doesn’t even recognise him properly, his decision to finish it is clear from that point. With Edgar looking like he’ll rise to the challenge of kingship quite well, the story had a more positive feel at the end than some productions give it.

I also want to mention Richard O’Callaghan’s performance as the fool. He was very good, and I found I was totally aware of the reasons behind his apparently meaningless chatter. Gone are the days when the fool’s lines seemed to be obscure nonsense.

And finally, Tim Pigott-Smith’s Lear was a very clear portrayal of a descent into madness, admittedly from a precarious starting point. The way his anger and controlling temperament led to his downfall was apparent, and again I felt he was one of those pampered types who would be nice as pie as long as everything went their way, but flare up into a rage when they didn’t get what they wanted. Of course, when you’re king, you usually do get what you want, so this is quite a reversal for him.

The whole tone of the production was brisk, no-nonsense storytelling, which suited us fine. We were certainly well satisfied, and from the loud applause it seemed the audience had also enjoyed themselves, even if they hadn’t responded much during the performance. It was a shame – the cast deserved better, and there was less of an atmosphere as a result. But we enjoyed ourselves well enough, and will be happy to come here again.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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