King Lear – November 2013 (1)

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th November 2013

We’ve seen Frank Langella on stage before in Frost/Nixon so we knew he could deliver a powerful performance, and we were keen to see how this would work in his interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s major roles. We weren’t disappointed, and as this was a preview we would expect the production to strengthen over its run, even though it’s not here for long.

The set was interesting, with an irregularly shaped raised area at the back leading down to the central stage area which was a mosaic of angled floorboards. I soon realised that this area depicted a rough map of Britain, with the different angled sections showing graphically how Lear intended to split up his kingdom. Along the back of the stage there were vertical wooden posts, staggered a bit to create both a screen and lots of possible entrances and exits; when characters did leave that way I could see there were steps down immediately behind the stage. A large wooden throne sat in the back right corner, above the map area, and looked remarkably like the English throne we’d seen in Edward II at the National. The costumes were historical, though I couldn’t say what specific period was intended; the general effect was mediaeval-ish.

The performance began with a young man (Edmund, it turned out later) walking onto the stage and looking around. He heard someone coming and left. The Dukes of Gloucester and Kent came on and began the dialogue, with Edmund coming on again in time to be introduced to Kent. He was clearly uncomfortable with his father’s jocular references to having sex with his mother, but kept his feelings to himself and put on a respectful face when offering his service to Kent. At first glance, he might have been a truly good person.

The rest of the court came on stage before the king, and took up their positions on either side of the stage. As Lear entered from the front, they bowed low or knelt, and they were there for some time; this Lear was showing his age and took some time to get across the stage. Frank Langella was playing him as an aged warrior, no longer with the strength or power of his youth, but used to command and to being obeyed unquestioningly. He shambled over to the throne, hardly glancing at anyone else, and even when he was seated the court remained kneeling.

Gloucester was soon despatched to “attend the Lords of France and Burgundy”, and then Lear began, rather creakily, to explain the purpose of the gathering. His attitude suggested he didn’t really care what everyone else thought, which slightly undercut his later desire to hear his daughters praise him, but it did emphasise that this was a man who was indeed crawling “toward death”. As Goneril stepped forward – she and her husband had been standing back left – the king took her by the hand and led her round the stage to the bit of land she would be getting, effectively the north of England (opinion was divided between Steve and I as to whether Scotland was included in this distorted map). As she stood there, he moved over towards the front of the stage so he could enjoy her performance. She took a few moments to get into her stride, but handled the situation with aplomb, while Lear stood, listening to her as if this was just so much yadda-yadda, a process to be gone through to get to the bit that really mattered (if you don’t eat your vegetables, you won’t get any dessert).

With Goneril satisfied, Regan was quick to position herself as even more loving than her sister. She got the same response from Lear, and was also given her allocation of land. Now for the good bit, as far as Lear was concerned. Cordelia, standing at the back of the stage, didn’t deliver her asides during this section so her “nothing” was the first word we heard her say. I don’t know if it was due to lack of experience or lack of practice, but this Cordelia came across as a sulky brat, unhappy at having to “heave my heart into my mouth” but without the courage or nobility of spirit that lifts her above her sisters. With such a flat performance, Lear’s disappointment and rage were slightly diminished too, and it was hard to see why he had been so besotted with his youngest daughter in the first place. Hopefully this aspect of the production will have improved the next time we see it.

There were some reactions amongst the court at Lear’s rejection of Cordelia; Kent in particular was upset at Lear’s decision, and soon made his feelings known. France and Burgundy arrived to find the court in an uproar, and made the usual choices; Gloucester had returned earlier than usual, so was aware of the treatment of Cordelia and Kent. Cordelia’s leave-taking was followed by Goneril’s “You see how full of changes his age is”, and Regan was again more laid back than her sister.

Edmund returned to the stage before they left, and bowed to the two ladies before telling us of his plans. The letter was already in his hands, and his delivery was brisk and clear – an efficient villain. Gloucester was soon duped, as was Edgar, and then we were off to Albany’s palace where Goneril was conniving with her steward Oswald to tame her father’s excesses. When Kent arrived, he was wearing rougher clothes including a mediaeval hoodie, and he spoke in his very posh accent until he was with the king. Lear had three followers at this point, and arrived carrying a brace of pheasants. The confrontation with Oswald was straightforward, and then the Fool arrived. Unusual casting, having a younger man play the part, and it made me think that perhaps Cordelia had spotted a good young stand-up and recommended him to her father, hence the Fool’s unhappiness at her departure to France. Played by Harry Melling, we didn’t recognise the trim young man on stage from the Harry Potter movies; he’s lost the puppy fat but kept the acting talent.

When Goneril turned up, it was clear that the power had shifted from Lear to his daughter, and that Lear was the only one who didn’t recognise that fact yet. The various arguments rattled through with some cuts, but it was all very easy to follow. Someone other than Curran told Edmund about the Duke of Cornwall’s arrival etc. – the Fool before he left? After the mock fight with Edgar, Edmund cut his forearm and it wasn’t treated until after he left the stage with the others. In the next scene, Oswald was totally reluctant to fight Kent, and his bragging afterwards raised a laugh. Kent was placed in the stocks towards the back of the stage. When Lear arrived, he alternated between temper and reasonableness; his temper wasn’t the strongest I’ve seen but was appropriate for this situation.

After Lear’s confrontation with his two daughters, the flooring in the middle of the stage was removed to leave a Britain-shaped depression in the middle. This was the receptacle for the rain, which poured down in the middle of the stage during Lear’s first scene on the heath, and the removal of the map also served to represent the crumbling of the Kingdom. The trapdoor for the hovel was at the back of the stage, and Poor Tom was down to one small loincloth. Lear tried to take off his clothes but only his jacket was discarded, as Kent and the Fool got to Lear in time and prevented any further removals. Edgar was noticeably keen to avoid his father and hid from him whenever he came on stage, cowering behind Lear at one point.

Following the brief scene between Cornwall and Edmund at the front of the stage, Lear was brought on stage again so he could rest. They dropped the trial of Goneril and Regan altogether, and Lear was soon laid down at the back of the stage under a blanket, only to be raised up again a few moments later. A couple of servants brought on a stretcher, and Lear was carried away by Kent and Gloucester while the Fool simply ran off after a short pause for thought.

For the blinding scene, Gloucester was tied to a chair towards the rear of the stage, and the blinding was completely and mercifully obscured by bodies. Regan’s behaviour was strangely sickening, though all she did was walk around the stage looking extremely pleased at what was going on – no squeals of glee, no leaping on people’s backs to get a better view. She came across as even more of a sociopath than her sister, and her competent stabbing of the servant who attacked Cornwall was no surprise. When Cornwall discovered his wound – we could see the blood on his shirt – Regan sat on the newly-vacated chair for a few moments before deciding to help her husband off. After this they took the interval so they could clear the bodies and blood and dry the floor for the second half. Mind you, the stage had drained pretty well after the storm, but there were still damp patches visible, and you know how Health and Safety feel about that!

Edgar was first up after the interval, and he was soon helping his father. I was very aware of his suffering at seeing his father’s afflictions and how difficult it was for him to continue pretending to be Poor Tom – very moving. After the preparations for war within the sisters’ forces, the Dover cliff scene had the advantage that there was an actual drop, albeit a small one, to fool Gloucester. Lear came on barefoot, and was clearly mad. He was doing military drill, checking on the fitness of his soldiers and generally carrying on from his earlier comments about taking back his kingdom from his daughters, hence his later thought about shoeing horses with felt. Lear sat down beside Gloucester for his (non-existent) boots to be removed. When Gloucester realised the king wasn’t wearing anything on his feet, he broke down in tears at the thought of how mad Lear had become. His mind may have gone but at least this Lear could run – he took off at a sprightly pace to evade his pursuers. When Oswald arrived, looking forward to claiming his “prize”, Edgar turned out to be better at fighting than usual, not such a wimp. In the next scene, Cordelia’s performance was still lacklustre, but her reunion with Lear was OK.

Edmund got some laughter from his discussion of which sister to have, though I found his delivery a shade too fast to make the most of this character’s interaction with the audience. Gloucester was left under one of the pillars at the back, there were sounds of fighting, and then Edgar came back to take him off. Lear was brought on still in his nightshirt, and after he and Cordelia were led off to prison, Edmund called back his captain to give him the extra orders. The captain was a little reluctant at first, but he did man up when Edmund made it clear this was no time for tenderness, and besides there was a promotion in it.

Regan was suffering a bit when she came on stage and she soon collapsed. The fight between Edgar and Edmund was more realistic than usual; it went on for some time, and although Edmund seemed to have the upper hand at one point, Edgar fought back and won. The dead sisters weren’t brought on stage in this production and Edmund’s body was removed, keeping things tidier than usual.  Lear came on at the front, half carrying and half dragging Cordelia. He laid her on the edge of the stage and gradually manoeuvred her into the middle, ending up cradling her from behind.

The lines were severely cut for this final scene. Albany didn’t offer the crown to Edgar and Kent jointly, so Kent’s lines “I have a journey…” came out of the blue and seemed a little odd. Albany spoke the final lines, clearly the one to succeed to the crown, and that was it.

Apart from Cordelia, the performances were all fine and supported Frank Langella’s central portrayal of Lear. The pace was brisk and the story very clear, so although this wasn’t as emotional a journey, it was still engaging and interesting to watch. We shall see how things have changed in a fortnight’s time.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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