King Lear – August 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Company: Theatre Royal Bath Productions

Venue: Theatre Royal Bath

Date: Thursday 8th August 2013

We weren’t sure what to expect from this Lucy Bailey production as we’d had such mixed experiences with her work in the past. Tonight the technical side of things was a bit hit-and-miss, and while the setting worked OK overall, there were areas where the text jarred with the actions, the accents and the characters. Having said that, there were some very good performances to enjoy and some nice touches in the staging, so all in all it was worth the trip. It was also our first time in Bath’s Theatre Royal and it was a weird experience, looking at all the pictures of past productions and realising we’d seen about half of them, despite never having been here before. The theatre itself was comfortable and, despite the minimal toilet facilities for women, a pleasant experience.

We sat near the front in the middle of a row and had a good view of the performance. The stage was open at the sides of the set and from what I could see it was back to the actual walls on either side. There were odds and ends of technical equipment on view, lights which shone across the stage for example, but mostly it was bare when the screens were removed. At the start we were in what looked like a hotel lounge area or perhaps a private room in a fancy restaurant. Three red leather armchairs were positioned round a circular table at the front of the stage. A couple of plain chairs stood in side corners and there was a drinks table to the right of the room. Two screens hung down, creating a lobby area behind the room, and there were double doors with fancy windows in the middle of the front screen. The screens were showing images of high, painted windows, with the rear screen being different from the front one although it was hard to make them out at first.

There was jazz music playing before the start and into the beginning of the play. Various characters came in to the lobby area and were standing around chatting. One chap came through the doors and sat in a chair to have a fag; when Kent and Gloucester came through a few moments later it became clear this was Edmund, the bastard. From the clothes we were in 1960s or 1970s East End gangland, with accents and behaviour to match. Kent spoke a little differently to the others, but I couldn’t place his accent in the opening scene; later on he changed it as part of his disguise, so I’m still clueless. Edmund seemed OK with his father’s description of him, although the comments about the “good sport at his making” went a bit too far for his liking.

Straightaway I could see a problem with this choice of milieu. For all the ideas about ‘honour among thieves’ and gangster codes of conduct, it simply didn’t ring true to have Gloucester refer to Kent as “this noble gentleman”, although “my honourable friend” was workable given a different concept of honour. But we managed to gloss over these things and focus on the important bits of this opening scene which would set us up for the rest of the play. Lear arrived looking very happy, with a daughter on each arm; I think one of them was Cordelia, but I’m not sure, since we hadn’t actually been introduced at this point. The third daughter came along behind and while Cordelia and Regan sat on one armchair, Goneril sat opposite them on her own. Albany and Cornwall were behind or beside their wives as usual.

The map was placed on the table, and Lear explained his intention to the assembled family members and friends. Goneril certainly looked interested in the prospect of getting her inheritance early. Cordelia had some interaction with Kent during this bit – he may have handed her a drink or somesuch – which showed that they had a great affection for each other, a useful thing to set up in advance. Lear pointed to the centre of the room, and Albany and Cornwall both came round to the front of the table and shook hands, to applause from the group. Lear’s challenge to his daughters caused concern – this was definitely not expected – and Goneril had to think fast. She really got into her part, tearing up as she thought about just how much she loved her wonderful father. Gwyneth Paltrow would have been proud. She recovered quickly enough to check out her prize, and she and Albany seemed satisfied with their share.

Regan thought she could get away with basically saying ‘ditto’ to her sister’s performance. When she stopped after “my very deed of love”, she looked around expecting applause and got nothing. Realising with horror that she actually had to come up with something new, she panicked for a bit until “only she comes too short” occurred to her. Whew, what a relief! She was also swift to check out the map, and this time I noticed that Lear gave her a red book, suggestive of a list of contacts or details of the various criminal activities which the ‘ruler’ of that area controlled. Later I noticed Goneril had a blue book, while Cordelia’s white book… well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

Cordelia had moved over to one of the plain chairs by this time, the one on the left of the stage. She was sitting there when Lear came over and put his arms around her, expecting to hear an even more loving eulogy from his favourite daughter. He even kissed her head before standing aside to give her invention free rein. “Nothing”. She gave us the rest of this speech from the chair as well, and the emphasis she put on “love my father all” was very unfortunate. We could see that she was the only one talking sense – that really stood out this time – but Lear wasn’t seeing things our way. He threw a total hissy fit, which included throwing the white book through the round window in one of the doors. That triggered a shattering of the video windows which cascaded down the screen – very effective, if a tad too much information at this point. Goneril and Regan both looked scared when Lear got angry; from their expressions it was clear they knew his temper from experience, and they and their husbands kept well out of Lear’s way. Cordelia seemed surprised as well as upset, suggesting that she’d known a different, kindlier father to the one her two sisters grew up with. Lear even threw Cordelia herself through the doors, and I could see Kent with her in her lobby afterwards giving her a glass of water and talking to her.

Goneril in particular had been quick to see the possibilities for her and Regan if Cordelia was no longer in contention. The coronet which Albany and Cornwall were told to part between them was actually a ring which Lear removed from his finger and tossed onto the table; Albany picked it up and put it in his pocket. Lear was taking the first of several large glasses of whisky when Kent approached him, rather tentatively at first, but he was soon telling Lear off in no uncertain terms, which lead to Lear threatening him with a bottle.

Cordelia came back into the room and was down on the floor at the front of the stage when Burgundy and France entered. Gloucester’s introduction tailed off when he realised that all was not well, and it was Burgundy who went straight to Cordelia to comfort her and help her up. Apparently there was some affection there, though the loss of her dowry was too much to bear. Cordelia went to speak to Lear after “I tell you all her wealth”, but he ignored her and turned to France. When Cordelia asked Lear to explain her “offence”, she turned round to her sisters to emphasise “and such a tongue that I am glad I have not”, which angered Goneril; she stepped forward as if to attack Cordelia but was restrained by Albany putting his hand on her shoulder.

Cordelia sat down in an armchair, and was there when France came over and declared his new-found love for her. I was moved to sniffles, and it was clear that France’s love had indeed been kindled “to inflamed respect” and that Cordelia’s virtues were her main attraction for him. I may have misheard, but I thought Cordelia said “I know what you are” tonight instead of “I know you what you are”; some of the later dialogue was changed, so perhaps this was too. After Cordelia and France had left, Regan let out a huge scream of pleasure and relief, and threw herself on one of the chairs. The sisters seemed willing to work together at this point; it won’t last. Incidentally, we both found the choice of accents for France and Burgundy a bit weird. Burgundy had a strong Scottish accent and France was a Geordie; suitably distant from London I know, but again there’s a clash with the text.

For the next scene, the screens were cleared and apart from a red telephone box with broken windows the stage was bare. Edmund had left the court earlier than usual – before Lear arrived, I think – and now we had an inserted piece of business: Edmund shagging a rent boy in the phone box. It went on for longer than necessary to show us what was going on, and afterwards Edmund threw some money at the young man before he headed off. I wondered what this was meant to show us that wouldn’t come out in the course of the play anyway. If it was showing us that Edmund was a homosexual, so what? It may have been illegal in those days, but I don’t think Edmund would have indulged in illicit sex just because of that. For the thrill of danger, perhaps, but that wasn’t what came across tonight. If it was meant to underline Edmund’s villainy, then we’re steering close to homophobia territory, and I’ve never had that impression from Lucy Bailey. Steve reckoned it might have indicated that Edmund had a secret life he needed to hide, but we know from his soliloquys that he’s hiding his evil manipulations, so nothing more is needed on that account. It did conjure images of the Kray twins, but if the audience hadn’t picked up on the gangster references by now, the phone box shag wasn’t going to change matters. It also highlighted the “lusty” aspect of Edmund’s nature, as if that was in doubt, but apart from that it seemed to be a perplexing piece of gratuitous sex which added nothing to the performance for us.

Samuel Edward-Cook’s delivery of the lines was OK, but on the whole his Edmund lacked any depth. There’s a lot of potential humour in his soliloquys, but even allowing for the audience’s lack of response throughout the performance, he kept his bastard on the bland side; vicious, but bland. He pulled out the incriminating letter at the appropriate point – “if this letter speed” – and was still holding it when his father arrived, reeling from the latest events at court. Gloucester actually took the letter from him at first, but Edmund snatched it back until eventually he obeyed his father and handed it over. As Gloucester read the letter, I was thinking that this setting made the possibility of Edgar wanting to kill his father more realistic; this was before I saw the man himself. But Gloucester obviously felt it was plausible, and the gangster background gave more credence to that view. (Conversely it made the “hundred knights” less believable: some you win…..)

When Edgar did turn up I revised my opinion rapidly. He stumbled on from the back carrying some stuff which he dropped; this turned out to be books and papers which he picked up and put back in his bag. With long curly hair, he was dressed in a brown corduroy jacket, blue trousers, checked shirt and glasses, and looked every inch the secondary school teacher taking some exercise books home to mark. Given his character’s apparent virtue during the play this interpretation fitted well, allowing him to distance himself from his father’s illegal activities, though I wasn’t sure how well it would work having him take over a criminal organisation at the end of the play.

The next scene took place outside the G nightclub, now run by Goneril. When she spoke with Oswald, the hunting references were removed, understandably. After instructing him to “prepare for dinner”, the door of the nightclub was taken away and tables brought into the forward stage area to show the inside of the club. The rear screen showed video of lots of young men having a good time, and certainly got across the numbers involved in a “hundred knights”. It was a much better use of this sort of video than Lucy’s Julius Caesar crowd scenes, especially when a fight broke out later on.

Kent sounded posher when he came on in his donkey jacket, but that soon changed when the Irish brogue took over for his disguise. I have to say it was a better disguise than most; with his moustache shaved off and no glasses he did look quite different from his first appearance. Lear’s thugs, sorry, attendants, with their shaved heads, braces and Doc Martens, behaved menacingly towards Kent at first, and Lear’s “Dost thou know me, fellow?” was a threatening question, with Lear’s head thrust forward and the suggestion that it wouldn’t be too healthy to answer “yes”. But once Lear had accepted the disguised Kent they were all friends. Kent did some pretend boxing with one of the men on “deliver a plain message”, and I noticed he wasn’t actually looking at Lear when he said “authority”, a strange choice. After he tripped Oswald, Lear gave him a large blue note on “there’s earnest of thy service”; initially I thought of a twenty, but in those days it would have been a five pound note.

The Fool was dressed in a suit and wore a hat, and made some angular movements which called to mind Max Miller. Lear did some mock boxing with him, and when the Fool said “so much the rent of his land comes to”, the rest of the men chorused “nothing”. Lear was angry with him after the “bitter fool” jibe and grabbed the Fool by the throat. It didn’t look good, but the Fool took off his hat and held it so Lear could see what was inside. When he saw the contents, Lear smiled and relaxed his grip – it was an egg. That led to the two crowns sketch, with the Fool eating the egg – Steve remembers him cracking the egg into a glass and drinking it. He dropped his trousers several times during this scene, and paraded round showing off his buttocks to all and sundry – moderately amusing.

When Lear finally snapped at Goneril’s chiding, he threw over a stool and that led to the fight breaking out in the video. Lear’s cursing almost made Goneril throw up; she was on the floor, crying, with her hands over her ears for most of it. Lear’s description of Regan as “kind and comfortable” seemed out of place in this setting. The Fool came back to finish off a bottle of whisky and disappeared with it in his hand when Goneril chased him away. Given Albany’s involvement in violent crime, they downplayed Goneril’s criticisms of his “harmful mildness”, and in this production he came across as more careful and intelligent but ultimately just as ruthless and determined as his wife.

The short scene between Lear and the Fool took place outside the club, and they planted a seed by having a couple of homeless folk wrapped in blankets huddled on the ground outside the door. Lear’s emotions were already affecting his reason, and before they left the stage I could see that he’d noticed one of the bundles.

The next scene was in an underground car park. Curran was present in this production, and passed on the snippets of information about the warring factions. Edmund used the speaker phone to tell Edgar to “descend” which he did, in the lift. Once Edmund started the pretend fight, an alarm bell began ringing, and it continued for some time. We laughed when Edgar couldn’t get the flick knife to open up, even though he kept trying.

Regan’s voice seemed a bit shrill when she came on with her husband, but maybe it was the circumstances; she seemed less shrill later on. Edmund was keen to be noticed when he offered the information that his brother had been amongst the king’s company of knights, and Regan was quick to spot his ‘talent’. After that group left, Oswald and Kent had their confrontation, and naturally there was no mention of horses. Oswald did throw some car keys to Kent, who tossed them on the ground before attacking the steward. Cornwall put a stop to the fight, and while Kent was ranting about the “unnecessary letter”, we smiled to see Oswald combing his hair back into place. Regan in particular wasn’t pleased to be informed that Kent had “seen better faces in my time”, and the Duke wasn’t prepared to tolerate any more of Kent’s insolence either. The stocks were made out of tyres, with a narrow one for Kent to sit on at the front left of the stage and a thicker one with chains to go over his body and anchor him there. He was still able to get the letter out of his pocket to read by moonlight, and I thought I heard him whistle a line or two of The Girl From Ipanema.

While he slept, Edgar came on stage to plan his escape. He smeared his face with some black stuff, took his shirt off, and curled up on the ground when some of Gloucester’s servants came looking for him. Again, his first use of “poor Tom” was to avoid discovery.

When Lear came back on, his shirt was starting to hang out and his jacket was missing. I began to get a real sense of Lear’s suffering during this scene as he talked with Kent in the stocks. After he sent Gloucester to fetch his daughter and her husband, he suddenly started gasping and clutched his chest. The Fool was behind him and reached into his pockets. He removed a bottle of pills and Lear took one of them. His passion grew as the rest of the scene unfolded, while the sisters were a smooth double act, goading him on. Goneril listened with interest as Regan expounded on the number of followers Lear actually needed, and this time when Lear started cursing them, calling them “unnatural hags”, both sisters laughed. This made Lear’s impotent threats seem all the weaker.

After Lear ran off, the sisters hugged to celebrate their victory, and went inside to shelter from the rain. The video on the screens changed to show a shifting London townscape, with buildings moving away on both sides. The rain was also lashing down, and several figures ran or walked very fast across the stage behind the screens, covering themselves as best they could from the storm. Kent’s conversation with the First Gentleman was a one-sided affair, as even I couldn’t make out the latter’s lines through the thick Scottish accent. Fortunately, most of the dialogue is Kent’s, and as he’d dropped the Irish brogue his lines were clear.

Lear and the fool came on from the back, and although there was no water on the stage, Lear had clearly been well soaked off stage while the fool’s suit had several damp patches. He also had a very tattered umbrella – there really wasn’t anything left but a few shreds of fabric attached to each spoke. Lear ended up on the ground with the fool beside him, holding the ineffective umbrella over his boss. Kent arrived soon afterwards and the threesome left together to find shelter, singing The Rain It Raineth Every Day. Interval.

So far I was impressed with David Haig’s portrayal of Lear’s madness. Given that he’d played the title role in The Madness Of George III, which we saw at Chichester, I was particularly pleased to see him show a completely different manifestation of insanity, and one which I found quite moving. There was still the slight problem of how this self-delusional man managed to create a criminal empire – given Lear’s Home Counties accent, he seemed more likely to be the gang’s accountant than a man of violence – but the performance engaged me so much that I wasn’t troubled by these minor discrepancies.

Returning to the auditorium for the second half, the stage had been transformed into Gloucester’s apartment. Strikingly modern, it had a large white globe chair with red interior and a metal and leather chair along with other 60s geometric furnishings. The view from the windows (video) showed modern tall buildings and the rain that was still pouring down. A young woman was sitting in the globe chair, and after Edmund snuck up and surprised her, the two of them had a snog. So he swings both ways then. From Gloucester’s attitude when he came on, we guessed she was his mistress, and he soon sent her away while he gave Edmund the very information he needed to incriminate his father. Gloucester took a torch with him when he left to find Lear.

The hovel to which Kent led Lear was located beneath a trapdoor just behind the front screen. As the three men came on stage, a stage hand was still covering up the globe chair which had been pushed to the side of the stage; a small distraction, but it took me away from Lear’s opening lines. The “poor, naked wretches” speech was done as a prayer, following Lear’s stated intention. Poor Tom still had his underpants on – the Fool referred to “undies” instead of “blanket” – and with more of the black stuff on his body he looked pretty wretched. Unfortunately I didn’t find his twitchy and jerky movements believable, so Lear’s conviction that the poor chap also had ungrateful daughters didn’t work so well for me. I think we lost the serving-man explanation of Tom’s plight, and he ended up on the ground for the “unaccommodated man” speech, which was very clear but seemed a bit too philosophical, as if Lear had regained his sanity temporarily. When it came time for Lear to “unbutton here”, he only managed to get his shirt off and his trousers unbuttoned before Kent and the Fool came to our rescue and prevented the trousers coming off as well.

The brief scene between Cornwall and Edmund was followed by the setting up of the ‘shelter’; this turned out to be a place where homeless folk gathered, appropriate in this context. There were three other bodies huddled under blankets or sleeping bags, and various bits of detritus lying around the place. Lear settled down to sleep immediately but sprang up again to arraign his elder daughters. Edgar, the Fool and Kent were placed on various improvised seats, and a small folding stool served to represent Goneril. The Fool booed her at first, and reduced his observation on her appearance to “I took you for a stool”. For Regan, Lear used a sleeping bag and, lifting it up vertically, he shook it about as if it were the lady herself. There was a lot of barking by the characters at one point, and one of the homeless folk joined in; presumably it wasn’t an unusual experience to have folk in that shelter making all sorts of odd sounds.

Lear was no sooner back in his bed than Gloucester arrived to move them on again. Poor Tom ran off, and the Fool was still sleeping soundly as Gloucester and Kent helped Lear off stage. For a while I suspected the thugs who were after them would break in and kill all the people there, including the Fool, but it all ended quite peacefully; the Fool woke up, realised the others had gone and ran off in a different direction crying “nuncle, nuncle”. The other homeless folk simply took up their beds and walked.

Back in Gloucester’s apartment, the sisters were deploying their forces and sending men out to find “the traitor Gloucester”. Conveniently, the man himself came up in the lift and was grabbed by the waiting henchmen. Gloucester was strapped to his metal and leather chair while Cornwall went to the drinks trolley and picked a nasty-looking spike for the eye-removal. I wasn’t going to look too closely at the next section, but when the thugs clustered closely round the front of the chair to hide the act of blinding, I relaxed a bit. Regan was so excited to see Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out that she leapt onto the backs of the men surrounding the chair, uttering squeals of delight which conveyed both the horror of what was going on and her sick and depraved nature. Incidentally, Paul Shelley was playing Gloucester without a beard, so no white hair plucking was included in this version.

The servant who intervened was quickly stabbed, and these violent acts so intoxicated Cornwall and Regan that they took a quick sex break, with Cornwall carrying Regan to another chair and half-lying on top of her. The servant hadn’t been killed though, and he took advantage of Cornwall’s defenceless position to take the spike from him and deliver a mortal blow. Regan was quick to dispatch the servant, and then handed Cornwall a pair of ice tongs so he could finish the blinding process. He went to drop the eye in a glass of champagne afterwards, but it stuck to the tongs, so he let the whole lot land in the glass. Regan tried to shift it as well, but no luck, so the tongs stayed put. The whole thing was totally yucky, tongs or no tongs. Cornwall sat down after his exertions, and we could see the blood on his shirt. Regan was concerned about him and rushed to his side, helping him off stage.

The stage was cleared again for Edgar’s arrival, and when Gloucester came on at the back he was on his own. The servant did turn up though, coming on from the side saying “o my good lord” as if he’d only just found Gloucester. Edgar was hunched at the front of the stage while the servant and Gloucester had their little talk, and cried out when Gloucester made his request to “see” Edgar again, bringing his presence to Gloucester’s attention.

At this point our attention was caught by someone moving along a row behind us. There was some talk going on as well, and it appeared that somebody had been taken ill and was being helped out. The ushers were soon there, and we did our best to refocus on the performance, but we lost most of the conversation between Edgar and his father and it can’t have been easy for the actors either. I hope the person was OK; I asked afterwards but there was no information.

It was easier for Goneril, Edmund and Oswald to get things going again with their entrance. Goneril was very friendly with Edmund, taking his flick knife out of an inner jacket pocket, presumably for protection on her journey, and tucking it seductively into her cleavage. Oswald looked away discreetly as she and Edmund kissed for quite a long time, a much more loving embrace than the one Albany gave his wife a little later, grabbing her by the neck and forcing his lips onto hers. This Albany was much stronger than the usual gentle man, prepared to be violent but preferring to watch and listen before striking. He was clearly going to be a competent war leader, so some of Goneril’s contempt was undercut by this. Now if they’d shown him having sex with a rent boy it would have explained a lot about their relationship.

Cordelia came on to a bare stage from the back, wearing a buttoned-up double-breasted black coat which hinted at her military intention. Her love for her father was well expressed and moving, and the doctor had a reassuring presence. Regan and Oswald were back at Gloucester’s place for their little encounter, and this was where the production was losing energy for me: too many quick changes of scene which were held up by the need to move furniture and screens around. To try and persuade Oswald to give up the letter, Regan took off one of her stilettos and held the heel to his throat – she had him on the ground at this point – but he showed an uncharacteristic amount of courage and refused her request. He left her sitting on the chair (the blinding chair) putting her shoe back on.

For the mock-suicide scene, the screen at the back had a picture of a Dover cliff on it. This seemed a bit bizarre at first until I remembered that Edgar does actually go to Dover to join the fight, but doesn’t take his father to the actual cliff edge. Fair enough, then. To add to my confusion, a strange contraption was brought onto the middle of the stage, a box-like framework which was open front and back but may have had doors on each side – I couldn’t see properly from our central viewpoint. This just sat there, no explanation, and apart from allowing Edgar a modicum of cover when Oswald turned up, it contributed absolutely nothing to the scene whatsoever.

When Gloucester threw himself off the cliff, he had enough momentum to roll forward a few times before lying prone near the front of the stage. He revived, and Edgar did the usual tricks with his accent to persuade him to accept his fate. Lear came on from the back, wearing a brown coat, blue trousers and with boots on his feet. His obvious madness brought the performance back into focus for me, and while I didn’t find this section as moving as in other productions, I was sad to see Lear’s degeneration. He had his hand down the front of his trousers – mandatory these days – wanking away, leading to the inevitable laugh when he claimed his hand “smells of mortality”. Personally I think there’s a lot more to that line than the current fashion for a cheap laugh allows, but few of the younger directors seem to be willing to buck the trend. Lear also had a quarter bottle of whisky in his pocket and gave some to Gloucester. Only two men showed up to find Lear, one of whom had tricolour stripes on his face, and Lear easily escaped their clutches and ran off. Edgar despatched Oswald with more assurance than his earlier clumsiness with the flick knife would suggest, although given that he was defending his father he was probably more motivated than before. He pulled Oswald’s body to one side and helped his father off, and by the time the next scene was set up, in darkness, the body had disappeared.

Kent, Cordelia and the doctor were on the stage, while Lear was in an armchair further back with a blanket tucked round him. The affection between Kent and Cordelia was still there – she touched his cheek – and Lear’s awakening brought more sniffles. The plotting of the sisters, Albany and Edmund rattled through OK, and I noticed their soldiers now had St George’s crosses painted on their faces. Edgar delivered the letter, and Edmund’s little talk about his relationship problems brought no laughs at all – what a waste. The battle was represented by drums and lots of noise off stage, and after Edgar had removed his father to a safe place, Lear and Cordelia were led on with hoods over their faces. Cordelia was just in her slip. Their hoods were plucked off before they had to speak – just as well – and I was a little surprised that they were allowed to go on for so long.

There were two tall doors at the back of the stage which came into play for these later scenes; I don’t remember them being used earlier. Regan was looking a bit unwell from the moment she came on, and didn’t get any better as the scene progressed. Goneril had a hip flask which Regan grabbed; she drank off the contents, which may not have been a good idea. She ended up writhing on the ground for quite a while before Goneril’s “I’ll ne’er trust poison”, and even longer before anyone thought to help her off stage, which seemed a bit odd.

For the challenge, the chap entrusted to read it out counted to three quite quickly for once, and Edgar didn’t hang about either, striding through the doors at the back with the light behind him before the count was finished, though only just. He wasn’t wearing a mask, relying instead on the dirt which was still on his face to conceal his identity. Not that it mattered: the fight started almost as soon as he reached the centre of the stage and there was soon a loose circle of soldiers around the pair, enjoying a bit of action. Goneril was also paying close attention, though she was further back and on the ground; when Edmund was on top of Edgar, preparing to finish him off, she and Edmund shared a long kiss.

That was Edmund’s undoing. Edgar had been rubbish again, and took quite a pounding but kept coming back. When Edmund paused for the snog, Edgar took advantage of the brief respite to gather his strength, throw Edmund off and get in a lucky blow. Goneril grabbed one of the discarded knives before rushing off, and Edgar took Edmund in his arms, though not with affection, to tell him the story of how he came to be there. They brought Regan and Goneril’s bodies on stage on a blue tarpaulin and left them near the back. Edmund’s sudden reformation didn’t seem right in this context, but he fished out what looked like dog tags to send to the captain as a token to release Lear and Cordelia. Too late, of course; the chap carrying the dog tags had hardly left the stage before Lear came on carrying his daughter’s body. When he asked for a looking-glass, everyone looked blank, but Albany pulled out his shiny silver cigarette case and handed it to Lear. Lear’s sorrow seemed briefer than usual, and there was no reference to loosening a button; he just had a sudden spasm, some difficulty breathing, and expired.

To conclude the play, Albany made his offer to Kent and Edgar to rule jointly; Kent turned it down – no clear suggestion of suicide – while Edgar stood up straight, gave his closing lines and then strode purposefully off the stage. Oo-er, what’s going on here? Albany was left with a few of his men and stood there for a moment or two, realising there was no one else to do the job. He pulled the ring out of his pocket, Lear’s ring from the first scene, and put it on his finger with a look of determination. It was a very good way to end this particular production, and sent shivers up my spine. [I’ve since learned that this ending is included in one of the versions of King Lear; unfortunately, the one I don’t have to hand.]

While I enjoyed a lot about this production, there were a number of problems which held it back compared to other versions we’ve seen. The technology supplied some useful aspects, such as the crowd scene in the club, the torrential rain without the stage actually getting wet, etc., but at times there was too much going on, and the video became a distraction from the action or dialogue. Having the set open at the sides reminded me of performances we’ve seen at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow; it gave them plenty of space and a flexible area, but there were occasional distractions on that account as well. Some of the performances weren’t as detailed as others, which let the side down, but that may be down to the director rather than the actors, and on the whole this was a good ensemble. But the main problem lay with the choice of setting.

Interesting though it was to see this concept worked through in so much detail, the text and setting were at odds in the most fundamental way. The opening scene of the play sets up the themes of legitimacy and authority. When the societal structure in which these themes are being played out has no actual legitimacy, this undercuts many of the play’s points. The ‘natural’ rules of succession are less likely to apply, and there is another level of authority outside this one which could intervene at any moment. They had to drop several of Lear’s new-found awarenesses, such as the revelation about the equivalence of a thief and a judge which would have appeared super-naïve in this setting. This was a shadow culture, one which had to hide from the legitimate authorities, so the sense of a country in crisis was missing; this was a more personal, domestic tragedy. The virtuous characters had to be distanced from the vice and corruption, which worked in the case of Edgar and Cordelia, but Gloucester and Kent became reduced by their involvement in crime. Many of the lines jarred or felt wrong, and although the flow of the performance covered a lot of these issues up, there was an undercurrent of niggles which brought our overall experience down.

I was impressed with a number of the performances. Fiona Button was very good as Cordelia, giving us a strong impression of her character in the short time she has on stage. Steve reckoned that Goneril and Regan were probably sent to the local comprehensive when they were growing up, as Lear was just establishing his family business, whereas Cordelia, a late child, had probably been sent to Roedean, and was more self-assured as a result. That certainly sums up the three women nicely. Aislín McGuckin gave an assured performance as Goneril; given her recent outing as Lady Macbeth at the RSC, she’s had plenty of experience with this type of character. I’ve already mentioned Daniel Weyman’s Albany; I was even more impressed when I read his CV and realised he had been Nicholas Nickleby in the CFT’s production a few years ago.

I’ll gloss over the weaker performances; in a production like this I tend to put those down to the directorial concept rather than the actors themselves. And now for the biggie, the king himself. I’ve made a few comments already about David Haig’s performance, but as this was our main reason for coming to Bath to catch the production, it’s appropriate to add a few more. While I wasn’t entirely convinced of his place in this stratum of society early on, I found his interpretation at least engaging and at best very moving. Not as powerful as some Lears, he was hampered by the limitations of the setting, but gave a very thoughtful performance which showed Lear’s vulnerability more than is usual. I usually don’t want to give Lear a cuddle, even when he’s about to hit rock bottom, but I could see myself doing it with this one. I did feel that with more support from the production his performance would have achieved greater heights, but as it is we’re glad we’ve seen it. And now we know our way to Bath, we’ll certainly be back.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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