King Lear – May 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Hill

Venue: Citizens Theatre

Date: Wednesday 9th May 2012

I’d seen some great productions at the Citizens back in the 1970s, so I was really keen to visit it again; something of a nostalgia fest for me. I reckon that’s why Steve and I rated this performance differently, which doesn’t often happen. He gave it 7/10, while I was much happier with a 9/10 rating.

We couldn’t see all of the stage from the start, but I’ll describe it all now – saves time later on. At the beginning, there were steps leading up to the stage centre front, and there was a transparent curtain of plastic strips right across the stage near the front. The lights from the auditorium created a pattern of glowing waves on this curtain. I could just about see that behind it was a table with chairs, and that was all.

Once the action started, the central section of the stage became clearer. With a girder delineating each corner, the centre of the stage held various items of furniture, from the opening dinner table complete with fancy chandelier, through various other chair and table combos, then wheelchairs, a bed, a shopping trolley, piles of rubbish, etc., as well as occasionally being vacant. Behind this central section was a wall of high glass panels. Lurking figures could be seen through this, the homeless folk who inhabited the world outside the confines of the play. Pianos were everywhere, and provided the music and sound effects throughout, sometimes played in the usual fashion, and sometimes the strings were exposed and played directly, giving lots of crashing discords. The overall colour scheme was murky grey, but despite the apparent drabness the performance was full of life (till the end and all those dead bodies, of course). The costumes were modern, with occasional hints of historical peasant garb.

They started this production with a homeless person slamming the trapdoor open at the front of the stage. Then several of the dispossessed clambered out and gathered in front of the curtain, gazing through it at the dinner party on the other side. This was frozen to begin with, but then one of the homeless chaps removed his anorak and moved through the curtain to join the party, just as there was a burst of laughter from the table; he carried the piece of paper that was the map. The other homeless folk snuck off, though they were visible during the play at the sides and back. The characters at the table included Goneril, Albany, Regan and Cornwall, while Kent and Gloucester were sitting on the near side of the table. Ditching the usual opening about which of the Dukes Lear prefers (tactless in this situation), they went straight into Gloucester introducing Edmund to Kent. The others joined in the ribald laughter at Gloucester’s story, apart from Kent and also Albany, who looked askance at this social indiscretion. Edmund was civil and obliging as usual, but was clearly put out by his father’s announcement that he would be sent away again!

Lear arrived with Cordelia, who took her seat on the near side of the table as well, possibly in Gloucester’s vacated chair. As Lear presented the challenge to his daughters to profess the depth of their love for him, he seemed to be making it up off the cuff, and amidst the surprise Regan reacted by laughing out loud. When Goneril started her speech, she clearly thought that stating the matter was beyond words would be sufficient, and when she realised she was wrong she moved pretty quickly into flattery mode, trotting out the flowery lines like an old pro. Already middle-aged, she’d had plenty of time to practice the ‘oily art’ over the years. Cornwall stood up to watch closely what portion Goneril was being given – obviously keen to get as big a prize as he could from this little game show.

Regan had had time to prepare, of course, so she heaped the praises on with a fork lift truck. Goneril didn’t look too upset at being upstaged, but Cordelia was deeply troubled. I didn’t spot Kent’s reactions at this point, but I suspect he wasn’t keen on Lear’s little game. Regan was given her portion – Cornwall on his feet again, and apparently happy with his wife’s winnings – and then Cordelia had to go and spoil it all. She spoke from her heart, and I noticed Kent was nodding a little, making it clear he agreed with her completely, and setting the scene for his coming outburst. Lear tore the map in two and handed one part each to Albany and Cornwall at the appropriate moment, and I think he was standing on the table when he sent Kent packing. When Gloucester came on to introduce the French king and Burgundy, his confident announcement trailed off with surprise when he realised something strange had happened since he left the room earlier.

For this section, Lear sat behind the table, his beady eyes fixed on the action. When Burgundy refused Cordelia, Lear seemed grimly satisfied that his judgement was being effective against her. He wasn’t so pleased with the King of France for speaking up on Cordelia’s behalf, and his eyes were narrow slits when France declared Cordelia his queen. Lear left with Burgundy, and France had almost left the stage with Cordelia before he paused and told her to say farewell to her sisters, who were still sitting at the table. With their departure, Goneril and Regan had their little chat, and I noticed that Goneril not only appeared more confident than Regan, she was also quick to adopt the royal ‘we’ in her speech, while Regan had yet to realise her new position.

The servants cleared the table and chairs away during that last bit of the scene, and so they soon had the furniture set up for Gloucester’s house – a sofa and not much else. There was an overlap with the previous scene during the clearing; as Goneril strolled off stage she cast an approving eye on Edmund, who came on wearing a grey tracksuit and laid on the ground near the front the stage. After Goneril left and the changes were complete, Edgar came on and sat on the sofa to read the paper and drink his can of beer. I liked this staging; again it got across the domestic nature of the relationships, and increased the risk factor of Gloucester and Edgar finding out Edmund’s trick before it had a chance to work. It also had the benefit of telling us who Edgar is, which is handy when he’s hardly on stage at all before he appears, disguised, as Poor Tom. Edmund’s diatribe against the social exclusion of bastards was more obviously a soliloquy with Edgar being present, and he handled it pretty well. He also spotted the useful quality of the word ‘legitimate’ and added it to the letter he’d prepared earlier.

After Edgar had gone off, presumably to get some more beer, Gloucester arrived carrying a bottle of whisky and a glass, and taking liberal helpings. He sat on the sofa to read the letter he took from Edmund, while Edmund played the concerned brother very well. After Gloucester’s departure, he worked the same trick on Edgar as they sat on the sofa together, and all was set for this strand of knavery.

Back with the dining table and chairs, Goneril gave her instructions to Oswald and then Kent turned up, hair no longer slicked down and without his glasses. From a fairly posh English accent, he chose to move to a broader Glasgow one, and he was ready to offer his service when Lear arrived, carried on the shoulders of one of his followers.

The attendant lords were a lewd bunch, each one equipped with his own doxy; Kent/Caius was a model of good behaviour by comparison. With plenty of support from acting and music students, the production could at least put lots of bodies on the stage, and these scenes benefitted from the numbers. The confrontation with Oswald was fine, and then the fool arrived. With a whitened face and a cap, this fool was dressed like a mime, and walked with one foot twisted inwards, creating a sense of disability. He also used the piano at the side of stage a lot to accompany his singing in this scene, although it wasn’t the most tuneful version I’ve ever heard. The lines came across well enough though, which is the main thing. I don’t remember any reaction from Lear on the ‘Nothing can be made out of nothing’ line, and Lear himself stood in for the bitter fool this time.

The confrontation with Goneril went badly, as usual, with her reproaches seeming reasonable in the circumstances, and Lear starting to move into madness through his obsessive belief that his daughters owed everything to him. He threw some chairs around before storming off, and the stress he was under came out more in the following scene while he waited with the fool for the horses to be ready.

Curran was included in this production at the start of Edmund’s next scene, and soon Edgar was on the run. Gloucester almost collapsed at the ‘realisation’ that his own son wanted him dead (silly man), and then Cornwall and Regan arrived to ask Gloucester for his advice. Kent’s altercation with Oswald was very good fun; perhaps it was the Scottish accent, but the insults were so well delivered that I heard every one, and the audience finally had a chance to laugh out loud. As I recall, Kent was using a golf club which Gloucester had left leaning against the bench, threatening Oswald with the handle end.

After the ‘combatants’ had been parted, Kent really put his foot in it with the insults to the assembled nobles. I was very aware that Kent was echoing Lear’s behaviour, acting as if he were still entitled to the benefits of his rank even though he’d been exiled and was in disguise. His look of panic as he realised he would be put in the stocks seemed to be partly for himself and partly for the insult to the king; like Lear he had still to learn the new political reality. Gloucester was also disturbed by this proceeding, and his reactions were clear throughout these scenes, not just during his lines. Kent was chained to the bench, and read his letter by moonlight. This done, the lights were lowered on the centre of the stage so that Edgar’s scene could take place near the front, using the same trapdoor that opened the play.

We both found this Edgar a bit strange. His accent was unclear, a strange mix from nowhere in particular – was this deliberate? His delivery was also a bit wimpish, and although I heard most of the lines OK, I wasn’t convinced by the performance that this Edgar would make a good king. Mind you, the way they ended the play suggested a different take, but I’ll deal with that when I get there. At least he established the disguise he was taking on – it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows the story – and there were some background sounds to suggest that people were out searching for him.

Back with Kent, the fool and Lear arrived, and again there was some humour in their exchange, with Lear refusing to believe that Regan would have put his man in the stocks and Kent assuring him she did – almost like pantomime. As the scene developed, I noticed that after Cornwall’s admission that he had Kent put in the stocks, Regan deliberately took over the conversation again, suggesting that like her sister she had come to realise the strength of her position, and that dealing with the king was her business, not her husband’s. After Goneril arrived and the greetings were done, the sisters stood at the front of the stage, one on either side, and tacitly negotiated the final transfer of power from Lear to them. Goneril had a slightly quizzical look when Regan started the process of bidding Lear down – what’s she up to here? – then the declaration of ‘but five and twenty’ made it clear, and a silent pact was made. Like two lionesses bringing down a rampant wildebeest, they held each other’s gaze and were steadfast in their demands while Lear raged impotently at his treatment.

With the storm starting, and Lear heading off into the wilds of Gloucestershire, the glass curtain at the back was raised, and several shadowy figures became visible lurking round the stage. This emphasised for me the world that Lear was entering; not so much the madness aspect but the dispossessed, the naked, those without shelter. And of course there’s a lot of mental illness amongst those sleeping rough, an appropriate connection to make between the play and the present day. Lear’s long rant was clear enough, bringing out the emphasis on ingratitude and his increased awareness of the suffering of the poor. The fool’s prophecy was cut, and we were soon through the discovery of Poor Tom, who stayed well clear of Gloucester when he turned up. The short scenes between Edmund and Gloucester and Edmund and Cornwall were fine, and for the arraignment scene there was a shopping trolley and a mattress, as well as a stool or two, although Goneril wasn’t a joint-stool this time (forget what was used instead). Before he went to bed, Lear actually smashed the fool’s head against one of the stools, giving him a bloody wound, and by the end of the scene the fool had clearly died. When Gloucester arrived to warn them to leave, they put Lear into the shopping trolley and wheeled him off, leaving the fool’s body there. Interval.

The second half started with the blinding scene, of course, and Regan was again much too keen on the unpleasant stuff. She even used one of her stilettos to remove the second eye – eugh! She did at least help Cornwall off after he was injured – some Regan’s don’t – and then we got a chance to see someone being helped on to the stage, as Gloucester was brought on by a servant and met his disguised son. Edgar’s emotional reactions were clear, and they were soon off to Dover.

The scenes come thick and fast now. Goneril had a good snog with Edmund before he left – no reaction from Oswald this time. Albany was a much stronger presence in this scene than usual, and very unhappy with Goneril’s actions. She was equally unhappy with him – I think she threw her handbag at him, or did he grab it off her? – so I don’t see much future in that relationship.

I think the next scene was Regan and Oswald – not the Kent scene, and possibly not Cordelia’s either – and although Regan had delved into her extensive wardrobe for a black ensemble, she was clearly preparing for another wedding, to Edmund this time. Oswald’s reluctance to show her Goneril’s letter to Edmund was not easily overcome, despite Regan’s rather crude attempt to offer sexual favours.

Back at Dover, Edmund helped his father up the steep slope to the top of the cliff, etc. I realised later that this is possibly the only scene in Shakespeare’s plays where the description of the location is actually wrong, and yet it’s so good that I find it hard to remember where we are, and it’s often a surprise when Lear comes wandering along the ‘beach’. Here the conversation between Lear and Gloucester was good, though not the best I’ve heard, and the attendants when they arrived were all women and all in white coats. Lear ran off, Edgar fought Oswald and took his letter, and then Lear was brought on in a wheelchair for the reunion with Cordelia. For some reason there was a young woman, one of the homeless, also in a wheelchair at the back and apparently being cared for by the women in white coats; don’t have a clue what it meant, but at least it didn’t get in the  way. The Cordelia/Lear reunion was quite touching, and then we were back with Regan and Edmund for the battle preparations. Edmund’s explanation of his dilemma over the sisters was another opportunity for humour, not really responded to this time which was a shame, as that was the last comfort break before unremitting doom and gloom set in.

The battle lost, Lear and Cordelia were taken away to prison. Regan showed symptoms of poisoning soon after her arrival on stage, Edgar was nearly beaten by Edmund in the duel but managed to keep going and eventually won the fight, and the messenger sent to the prison had hardly run off the first time before Lear arrived on stage with Cordelia’s body, crying ‘howl, howl, howl’. With Lear dead, Kent not only took out a gun while saying his final lines, he also sat in the chair, put the gun in his mouth and fired immediately after he’d finished speaking, as abrupt an end to this character as I’ve ever seen, though other productions have pointed in this direction. After Edgar’s closing lines, he and a group of the homeless folk joined up in a band and walked to the front of the stage, suggesting that the have nots are now taking over the country, and that Edgar’s time as Poor Tom has taught him the lessons that Lear never learned until it was too late. It was a different, and almost a downbeat ending (Lear? Downbeat? Surely not!) without the sense of goodness surviving through the difficulties and some sort of order being restored. This ending suggested a tearing down of the old ways and an almost hostile takeover of society by those who have no investment in the previous regime. It’s an interesting parallel with current events, and one I have some sympathy with, although I’m not sure the play fully supports this reading. Still, I enjoyed this evening enormously, and despite some flaws, the story was told very well with some strong individual performances. I’ll be keen to come back here again for future productions.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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