King Lear – October 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Attenborough

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 6th October 2012

This was a very clear, good staging with some nicely detailed performances. I didn’t find it as engaging as the recent Donmar and Tobacco Factory versions, probably because the Almeida is still effectively a proscenium arch space; this was a very good production nonetheless. There were few significant staging choices, but the emphasis on the narrative and strong energy kept us engaged throughout.

The set was a semicircle of castle walls in rough stonework. There were two levels, with five openings spaced round the walls. On the upper level there were three balconies in the middle flanked by two windows, while below there was a large central doorway  with folding metal doors, an ordinary door on either side and doorways on each end of the curve. The flagstones on the stage were crossed with grilles, which could have been used for water if they’d had any; instead they were simply used for lighting effects. There was a bench on each side, and a throne on a dais was brought on as needed through the central doorway. For the second half, with most of the scenes being set around Dover, the benches were cleared away and strips of rough planting placed strategically around the stage, both above and below. There were several electric lights round the walls, and a ridge of stone between the two floors such as in ruined buildings, indicating that a floor used to be there. There was little other evidence of decay so I assume that was just a design feature. This mixture of modern and pseudo-mediaeval was also present in the costumes, some of which looked a bit chunky for comfort, but the overall effect was fine.

The text was a blend of the Folio and Quarto, so it was largely familiar but with the occasional difference which kept it fresh to my ears. They began in near darkness, with a figure coming through one of the doors and lurking near the front of the stage. This was Gloucester, and he was joined soon after the lights came up by Kent for the opening lines. As they spoke these, another man appeared in a different doorway and was spotted by Kent, who referenced him with the line “Is not this your son, my lord?” Gloucester was as embarrassing as usual, play-boxing with Edmund, giving far too much detail about his conception and announcing that “away he shall again”. Edmund bore these humiliations stoically, and was pleased to make Kent’s acquaintance, but his unhappiness with his lot was clear.

The court only just arrived before the king did; Cordelia had to skip quickly across the stage to kneel before her father as he came through the doors at the back. They all had to move when Lear ordered the map to be spread out, as it was more like a carpet than a map. Regan and Goneril stood to the left with their husbands, while Cordelia stood to the right. Lear was much more affectionate to Cordelia in this scene, and it was no surprise that her sisters didn’t like her much.

The announcement of his semi-retirement didn’t come as a shock to the court – presumably this had been discussed beforehand – but when he asked the question “which of you shall we say doth love us most” he definitely caught them by surprise. Goneril looked quite pleased, as if she felt she had a better chance now that flattery was an option. Albany bent forward to have a word in her ear while Lear completed his speech; meanwhile Regan stepped forward, ready and willing to have a go (typical second child). Lear beamed at her eagerness, but decided to go in age order. Goneril was smoothly into her stride, and it was abundantly clear to anyone with common sense that her words were excessive and undoubtedly false. Lear didn’t see it that way though – he loved every minute of it, kissed her at the end and not only showed which area she would get, he stood her on it as well, on the right hand side of the map. He also put a coronet on her head. Cordelia delivered her asides during her sisters’ speeches from the right side of the stage.

Regan was just as quick with her praise, and I didn’t notice any reaction from Goneril when Regan made her comment about coming “too short”. Again, this was laid on with a trowel, and Lear came across as a bit mad already with his ready acceptance of such obvious flattery. Regan got a cuddle from Lear, and I was starting to think he was a bit too affectionate with his daughters – what had gone on in the past? Regan stood on the left hand side of the map, also with the coronet which Lear had given her. Then Lear took Cordelia and not only placed her on the middle of the map but put the coronet on her head before she’d said a word, he was so sure that she wouldn’t disappoint him.

Cordelia’s first “nothing” was treated as a joke, with Lear and the sisters smiling. Her continued refusal to play the game astounded Lear at first, and then he became angry. He also started feeling his chest, as if he was getting pains or tightness there, and through the next section he loosened his jacket or waistcoat, revealing his shirt underneath. When he told Albany and Cornwall to split Cordelia’s lands between them, he snatched the coronet off her head and threw it at the two lords. He was behaving really badly, but worse was to come.

Kent’s intervention was very strong; he stood up to Lear but to no avail, and he left just as Gloucester was coming back in to announce the entrance of France and Burgundy. Gloucester noticed that something was up, but obviously didn’t know the details at that time. Cordelia stood front and centre for this part, facing the throne to begin with then turning to face us or her father as the scene continued. Cordelia was quite scathing about Burgundy’s concern for money and status, and didn’t seem to react much to the King of France’s speeches, but then she’d had a tough day already, poor lamb. Lear flounced off with the rest of the court apart from Goneril and Regan, and Cordelia was almost out of the door after “with washed eyes Cordelia leaves you”, but couldn’t resist coming back to have another go at the two of them. The sisters’ conference after she left showed that they were willing to cooperate with each other in dealing with their father, with Goneril taking the lead.

Edmund’s opening speech was fine. He had the letter ready prepared on a scrappy piece of parchment and was sitting on one of the benches reading it when his father arrived and asked to read it. I was very aware, when Gloucester made his comments about “nothing” that he wasn’t present when Cordelia upset Lear with her “nothing”. So two “nothings” set us up for a serious tragedy with lots of deaths – a powerful word indeed. Edmund played his part well enough, seemingly concerned to support his brother while stitching him up even more. Gloucester was as easily fooled as Lear, and Edmund’s sneering analysis of Gloucester’s superstitions was well received by the audience. In fact there was more laughter during this Lear than any other production I’ve seen.

Edgar was just as easy to fool as his father, but first Edmund had to get his attention away from the delectable young woman Edgar was grappling with when he came on stage. Still mostly clothed, they looked like that wouldn’t last for long until Edmund pulled the young woman to one side, gave her a small coin for her trouble and sent her packing. Who knew Edgar was such a man-about-town? Quite how he got his lines out with all the snogging I don’t know, but he managed it.

Goneril’s complaints about her father’s behaviour seemed reasonable given his outburst in the opening scene, and she was clearly angry at having to deal with these problems. Kent had shaved his beard off, so his disguise was believable for once, with his rough clothes and changed accent. Lear was in good humour to begin with, and I noticed he was constantly calling for his fool. The exchange with Oswald was straightforward, and then the fool arrived. A tall chap, he wore grey clothes and a square cloth hat and spoke with a Geordie accent. He and Lear seemed to have a good relationship, despite Cordelia’s banishment, but although Lear commented on his singing, the fool seemed to sing less than usual this time.

With Goneril’s arrival Lear started to lose his temper, and his curse on her fertility really upset her. She was crying afterwards, though she tried to show a brave face while Lear was still there, and she recovered herself when her husband started to interfere – telling him off gave her something else to think about. Oswald was sent off with a letter, and then Lear re-entered, sending the disguised Kent off with a similar letter. Lear was very upset, and again I could see how this disturbance made him better at answering the fool’s question about the stars. He even mimicked the fool a bit, too. His line “Keep me in temper. I would not be mad” was addressed directly to the fool, an instruction to use his skills to keep Lear sane. The fool’s final lines were “cut shorter” in this production – not a bad choice.

Edgar’s flight had a slightly unusual staging. Edmund came on and called up to the right hand balcony for his brother, who came forward but then pulled back when Curran arrived. Edmund had a quick chat with Curran about the Duke of Cornwall’s arrival, then Curran left and Edgar arrived on stage. Their talk and fight were pretty standard and after Edgar left, Edmund wounded himself on the arm; they didn’t use fake blood for this injury. Regan and Cornwall’s arrival was straightforward, and nothing was made of Edmund’s injury (Regan sometimes binds it up herself).

Kent and Oswald had a right set-to, with Oswald’s long dagger no match for Kent’s machete-like sword. There were some laughs during Cornwall’s interrogation of the two messengers, but even so it all ended unhappily. The stocks which Kent was put in had a wooden back and floor with the leg stocks at the end, and it was placed in the centre of the stage. Kent’s arms were also tied to the sides of this structure, but he was able to take out the letter to read by moonlight.

With the stage temporarily darkened and sound effects indicating pursuit, Edgar came on at the side of the stage to explain his plan for escape. Near the end, two soldiers came on and Edgar fell to the ground and did his “Poor Tom” impression; he’d already removed his shirt, and when one of the soldiers checked him over it was a good enough disguise to fool him. Edgar’s comment “that’s something yet” referred to the success of his impersonation,

Lear and the fool arrived once Edgar left, and the unhappy encounter played out as usual. Lear worked hard to restrain his temper when he found that Cornwall and Regan were unavailable, but the efforts of his two daughters to exert their authority over him proved too much in the end, and he left with the fool, still desperately trying to keep his sanity.

Kent met with another man and sent his message to Cordelia, and then Lear and the fool entered to do the storm scene without a drop of water to be seen. Just acting. Almost revolutionary in modern terms. Kent returned, and the hovel was entered by a trapdoor. Edgar emerged wearing a fairly substantial loincloth, and hid himself beside Lear when Gloucester turned up. Lear was clearly fixated on his daughter’s ingratitude, and his madness was entirely believable and quite touching, though not as moving as I’ve known it before. At the end of the scene, the fool simply left, clearly deciding that Lear was no longer worth following. I forget exactly when Gloucester had his short scene with Edmund, but this took place up on the central balcony, as did the subsequent scene between Cornwall and Edmund.

They took the interval after this scene, and restarted with the dreaded blinding scene. Apart from noticing Regan’s enjoyment of the whole sordid business, and spotting that Cornwall had been given some eye-like stuff to hold after each bit of nastiness, I avoided as much of the unpleasantness as I could. Regan was concerned for her husband this time, after his stabbing by one of the servants, and the other two servants, a man and a woman, were left to comment on Cornwall’s actions and look after Gloucester.

Edgar’s happy philosophising was cut short by his father’s arrival with bloody bandaged eyes, and I found his reactions to events the most moving in this performance. I could see how difficult the situation was for him, pretending to be the bedlam beggar Poor Tom and helping his blinded father to Dover to commit suicide. Tough for anyone, but especially after everything he’d already gone through. Edgar’s later description of the high cliff was very good, and I was more aware this time that they were just standing in a field or similar at the time.

Meanwhile, back at Albany’s HQ, Goneril arrived with Edmund and was informed of her husband’s strange attitude. She gave Edmund a long kiss before he left, and although Oswald looked a little uncomfortable as he stood there, I didn’t get the impression that he’d been as close to his mistress as in some productions. The news of Gloucester’s blinding interrupted the marital row, and Goneril was naturally worried about the proximity of Edmund to her newly-widowed sister.

Cordelia made a brief appearance as Queen of France, sending out people to find her father, and then Regan had her unsatisfactory conversation with Oswald. The scene at the top of the ‘cliff’ was good, and then Lear turned up, stark mad. There was some humour in this part, and the dialogue was nice and clear. Oswald was soon killed and his letter taken and read by Edgar, who then took Gloucester off to safety.

Lear’s awakening was nicely done, and then there were the usual preparations for the battle, followed by the final post-battle scene with all its revelations. Edgar and Edmund had a proper fight, and when Lear returned with Cordelia, another man was carrying her body. Lear did a lot of chest clutching again before he died, and for once the bodies of Edmund, Goneril and Regan weren’t cluttering up the stage. Kent got up and left after saying his final lines, and Edgar said the play’s closing lines with sadness and a sense that he accepted his new position.

The staging was so straightforward that I’m surprised to find so little to note up. The dialogue was mostly clear and intelligible, which helped a lot, and the details of the story came out very well. The pace was brisk, and although I wasn’t as moved this time, I did enjoy the production very much.

Jonathan Pryce gave an excellent central performance as Lear, with lots of detail and a willingness to let the character be unlikeable at the start. This was one of the reasons I felt less emotionally involved, as Lear was so obviously unbalanced from the beginning that the other relationships didn’t quite gel for me. Why would Kent be so loyal? Cordelia may well have been the pampered one, but she’s not stupid and she sees what’s going on, so why would she be so unaware of her father’s instability? The pace of the performance kept me from dwelling on these points, but there was a general sense that this was a production which hadn’t plumbed the depths of meaning in all areas, even though it hung together pretty well.

Goneril was played by Zoe Waites who is always superb, and this was another great performance. Jenny Jules played Regan, and I found her dialogue not as clear as the others which was a surprise. Her performance was fine, though not as detailed as some, but that may have been down to the production choices. Phoebe Fox was a winsome Cordelia, and Ian Gelder a dependable Kent with flashes of temper in his insults to Oswald. Clive Wood’s Gloucester was another good portrayal, and I liked Richard Goulding’s Edgar. The rest of the cast were fine and the audience were very appreciative at the end, and rightly so.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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