King Lear – March 2014

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sam Mendes

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Sunday 2nd March 2014

I was a little disappointed with this production today. I felt the concept didn’t quite work with this play, although there were some very good performances and one excellent piece of editing. The concept also meant I had no sympathy with Lear, thus no emotional engagement with him, and that’s a pretty big hole in the centre of the play.

We had to come down the side aisles today, as there was a wooden walkway stretching from the centre of the stage back to row E blocking our access on that side. We were right next to the walkway, and for the most part had a pretty good view of everything, plus some details that may not have been apparent from elsewhere in the auditorium. The walkway extended across the stage as well, all the way to the back, and later we could see that it formed a cross on the revolve so that the walkway could be complete when the revolve was in different positions.

At the front of the stage, placed on this walkway, was a wooden chair with its back to the audience. Beside it was a microphone stand. A wall was positioned about halfway back with a recessed area above the lower half, and onto this back panel was projected an image of the sun. It was a moving image, with the writhing corona clearly visible. We had a brief discussion on the potential symbology of this image, and I came to the conclusion that it can be dangerous to use symbols such as this; with so many possible meanings, it may not be helpful in getting a particular idea across to the audience. However I needn’t have worried; shortly before the start an eclipse began, taking a few minutes to reach its maximum – at which point the corona brightened a bit – and staying at maximum till the actual start of the play.

It was a nice touch, suggestive of sudden and drastic changes as well as giving more substance to Gloucester’s comments on “These late eclipses in the sun and moon”. I also wondered if the eclipse itself was in some way the trigger for Lear’s announcement of his “darker purposes” – an astrological green light – but nothing was made of that possibility. It would also have been nice if the whole auditorium had darkened during the eclipse, but as people were still getting to their seats that could have caused problems. Along with this minor pre-show activity, we were subjected to the almost inevitable low-frequency droning sounds – again! (No prizes for guessing one of the top items on my to-do-list if I ever get put in charge of the planet for a day).

With the sun, moon and eclipse faded away, the lower wall rose up to reveal a very long table (actually it was three put together) which spanned a fair bit of the revolve. There were chairs on the far side – two to each table – and small microphones which I didn’t spot until they were used later. Kent, Gloucester and Edmund came on from the back I think; I was distracted by Adrian Scarborough as the Fool taking up a position almost beside us on the walkway. He wore a suit and a hat with a feather in it, and he brought on a low stool on which he sat during the opening scenes. For the most part he had his back to the stage, but once or twice he turned around to look at what was going on. I’ll go into more detail on his reactions at the appropriate times.

In that position, the Fool blocked my view of Edmund’s introduction to Kent, so I’ve no idea how that was played. Gloucester and Edmund wore suits while Kent’s uniform looked like a darker suit with military trappings, including a medal hung round his neck on a light blue ribbon. The designer may have been avoiding a specific period with the costumes; they seemed to be mid-twentieth century to me, although the soldiers’ gear looked more modern.

The Fool also blocked my view of the court’s entrance to some extent, though I got the gist. Goneril, Regan and their respective husbands entered along with Cordelia and took their seats at the table. Goneril and Albany sat at the middle table, Regan and Cornwall on the left and Cordelia was on her own at the right hand table; there was a spare chair for the lucky suitor who won her hand. A massive number of soldiers trooped on as well and stood around the sides of the stage; this was a hugely strong military presence and set the scene very well. The Fool stood and faced the stage for this bit, sitting back on his stool again (and facing away from the action) once Lear sat on his chair.

I know Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale wanted to convey the idea of a totalitarian dictatorship – the staging so far supported that concept nicely – but it was unfortunate that Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Lear looked initially like a cross between his Stalin and his Richard III. He even had a slight limp and a slightly hunched shoulder to complete the picture, along with a bald head. Steve spotted that he looked startled to see the Fool in the room, but I didn’t see his reaction from my seat.

Lear barked out his order to Gloucester (“Attend the lords of France and Burgundy…”) as he walked from the back of the stage, and when he sat down to “express our darker purpose”, he used the microphone. This brought a coldness to the proceedings, which is perfectly acceptable in this scene but may have added to my lack of involvement. Albany and Cornwall stood when Lear mentioned their names, and everyone was behaving in a very controlled manner.

The delivery of the word “amorous”, describing France and Burgundy’s “sojourn” in Lear’s realm, suggested that Lear had a distaste for such frivolities as love, though I could see that when he asked his daughters to express their love for him, he felt a deep need to be loved and to believe that he was loved – the curse of a feared dictator. When Lear called on Goneril to speak, she was understandably nervous. Albany passed the microphone stand across to her, and she made a pretty good stab at a speech which might please her father, even if she did have to think fast. Lear prowled around while she spoke, and then paused when she had finished – had she done OK? He applauded her briefly – no one else joined in – and then signalled to a soldier standing behind Goneril to deliver a large folder which contained the details of her portion. While this was being done, Cordelia delivered her aside.

I missed some of the fun when it was Regan’s turn; Steve informs me that Cornwall either didn’t pass his wife the microphone stand or she grabbed it before he had a chance – whichever it was the rest of the audience had a good laugh. Regan certainly made the most of her opportunity, walking out from behind the table and over to her father so that she could sit on his lap and give him a big smoochy kiss – ahhh. Lear lapped it up, and clapped as well, but when Regan and Cornwall got their reward neither Steve nor I could see their response, though from the audience’s reaction something was going on.

Cordelia’s turn next, and when she stood up and took the microphone it took her a while to respond to Lear’s question with “nothing”. Her second “nothing” (not in my text) was much firmer, and the Fool smiled to hear her words, turning to watch as she expanded on her “nothing”. There were subtle reactions amongst the other family members too; they sat very stiffly behind their tables, at least until Lear started throwing them over (the tables, not the family members). It was a massive strop, and continued when Kent tried to intervene. The Fool was standing, watching what was going on at this point. Kent’s attempt to restore sanity (and what sort of ‘sanity’ can be restored in a totalitarian madhouse?) angered Lear so much that he grabbed the ribbon round Kent’s neck and tore off his decoration before announcing his exile.

There were a number of issues which Steve and I had with the staging of this scene. To begin with, there had been no indication that Cordelia was better loved than either of her sisters, and her rather leaden behaviour didn’t support France’s later assessment “she is herself a dower”. This undercut the effect of Lear’s ‘sudden’ change, and while his temper tantrum was magnificent (if you like that sort of thing) I felt that it was too much in keeping with the nature of tyranny, so that later  comments on how Lear has changed failed to convince. His family’s fear could only be believable if the old man was known to be likely to take against someone ‘suddenly’ and without apparent justification, so why the surprise when he does that very thing? Kent’s appeal to good sense only works if good sense seems like a valid option – no sign of that here. Setting up such a strong political situation to ground the play makes the personal relationships difficult to sustain, and this choice weakened the whole production for me.

With the return of France and Burgundy, Lear threw Cordelia across the room so that she stumbled and ended up standing on a chair. After Lear sat down on his own chair, Cordelia approached him with the request to clear her name, and glanced behind her at her sisters when mentioning “a still-soliciting eye” (Goneril) “and such a tongue as I am glad I have not” (Regan); her sisters took exception to these slights. Lear was back on the microphone for “better thou hadst not been born…” – slightly shocking to make it so public – and France came to the rescue as usual. Cordelia spoke her lines rejecting Burgundy while looking in her father’s direction for the most part – don’t know what that was intended to convey – and Lear pushed through France and Cordelia’s joined hands as he left the stage. The Fool hugged Cordelia, and was clearly upset as he came past us on his way out, while France waited next to us for Cordelia to join him as she said her farewells to Goneril and Regan. No love lost there, and once alone the elder sisters didn’t seem too keen on ‘daddy’s’ future visits either.

The first big scene change now, and the revolve brought round Gloucester’s office – a desk and chair on the left accompanied by a sofa and chair on the right of the stage. The other furniture was quickly cleared away by a number of people – always handy to have plenty of extras in a production. The screen dropped back again, and Edmund came through the central door to sit on the sofa and discuss his career options with us. With his suit, slicked back hair and glasses, he came across more as an Angelo (Measure For Measure) rather than an Edmund – very prim and meticulous – and there was no humour in his initial speech. He did pick up a framed photo of Edgar from Gloucester’s desk when referring to “a whole tribe of fops”, and turned the picture towards the audience so we knew the target of his comment.

When Gloucester wanted to get the letter from Edmund, he gripped the young man by the throat till he handed it over – this was certainly a violent world they’d created. Gloucester read the letter by the light of his anglepoise, and his verdict – “conspiracy” – would undoubtedly have been a dangerous accusation in this sort of society. There was some laughter – finally – when Edmund rushed through his ‘innocent’ corroboration of the letter’s contents, and Gloucester was consulting a book when he commented on “these late eclipses in the sun and moon…”. He thoughtfully left the book on a chair, whence Edmund retrieved it and gave us the lines “My father compounded with my mother…” in an affected accent and with the book open as if he were reading from it.

He continued with the book when Edgar arrived. The legitimate brother hadn’t made much of an effort; dressed very casually, he was smoking a cigarette and swigging from a bottle when he came through the door, and didn’t look remotely like “a brother noble”. His delivery of “two hours together” suggested that the time had seemed longer, and all in all this was not an Edgar I could see ruling the country at the end of the play.

However we were now off to Albany’s castle, where Goneril was consulting with Oswald about her father’s behaviour. The revolve brought round another long table to the right of the stage which was laid with many place settings, presumably for dinner. Once the sofa and desk were cleared away, there was a smaller table on the left with just one chair – Lear obviously sat alone to eat. We laughed at Oswald’s “He’s coming, madam” as we had all heard the noises off stage from the returning hunting party. There were four female servants standing behind the table, and when Goneril told Oswald “put on what weary negligence you please”, the women began clearing the table of plates, glasses and cutlery, and they had almost completed that task when Kent came loping towards the stage down the walkway. He stopped just short of the stage to tell us who he was – since he’d shaved his head that was a wise move – and to inform us of his intention to use a different accent.

With his greatcoat and backpack, he looked like a demobbed soldier, and when Lear and his men came on stage, Kent started up a marching chant which the other soldiers joined in. Lear was getting his green cardigan on, and by the time he asked “how now, what art thou?” Kent was standing on the table next to the dead body of a stag. He used an Irish accent to play Caius, and came down from the table to approach Lear during their talk. When Oswald came on again he was carrying a bowl (of soup?) and a side plate with a roll. He placed these in front of Lear, and ignoring Lear’s “where’s my daughter?” carried on past him to leave the stage.

This was another area where the concept started to come apart at the seams. With all those rowdy men at his command, how come there wasn’t more uproar when this slighting of their king happened? I know Goneril goes on about the potential danger of letting Lear have “an hundred knights”, but there was no sign whatsoever in this scene that they were anything but pussycats. Loud pussycats, of course, but nothing to be feared. This is another case where less is more, and since the director chose to thrust this ‘realistic’ staging on us, he has to take the criticism when it invites such distracting thoughts.

When Oswald returned, he brought a soup spoon for Lear and placed it beside the bowl before attempting to leave the stage again. The soldiers reacted more this time, and while Oswald was being tripped up by Kent, the Fool arrived at the back of the stage, dressed as before and pulling a wheeled suitcase. There was a ukulele stuck into one of the outside pockets of the suitcase, and the Fool took it out later for the first song, of which there were many. For now he simply put his hat on Kent’s head on “Here’s my coxcomb”. Kent took it off and gave it back but the Fool replaced it on Kent’s head on “There, take my coxcomb”.

For the “Have more than thou showest…” speech, the Fool held out his hands in front of himself as if he were reading the lesson from a book. When Lear complained that his words were “nothing”, the Fool held the non-existent book out towards Lear to ask “Can you make no use of nothing, uncle?” When Lear got up to stand in for the lord his soldiers applauded him, and despite calling Lear a fool, the Fool got away with it – Lear was soon laughing at his jokes again. The next song was done as a round robin, with the soldiers joining in and Lear left singing the last line on his own when everyone else stopped suddenly. The soldiers laughed at this, and even Lear enjoyed the joke.

With Goneril’s arrival things changed, although the Fool kept larking about for a bit. He was standing on the table for “Thou wast a pretty fellow…” and using the dead stag’s head like a puppet, which was funnier than it sounds. The soldiers made their displeasure at their poor treatment known – one of them held up an empty bottle to indicate there wasn’t enough drink for their liking. The Fool belched during Goneril’s first lines, and the soldiers all laughed at that, but they weren’t happy when she asked Lear “a little to disquantity your train”. In fact they left pretty quickly, so that there were only Lear, Goneril, Albany, the Fool and one of Lear’s followers on stage when Lear began cursing his daughter. Albany’s reactions were crucial at this point. Goneril was upset but tense, so we didn’t see much reaction from her until the very end of Lear’s speech, but Albany’s reactions conveyed the nastiness of Lear’s words.

When it came to “thankless child”, Goneril slapped Lear hard across the face, and then put her hand over her mouth as if she couldn’t quite believe she’d done it. Lear was shocked too, but despite being an apparently tyrannical dictator, his reaction was milder than one would expect. He stayed fairly quiet, and after staggering slightly left the stage. Goneril still looked shaken, not just by the curse but by her own breaking of a taboo in hitting her father; his slide from power was manifest now. When Lear came back on for a second rant he was carrying a piece of paper from which he appeared to read out the “fifty of my followers at a clap”. He crumpled the paper up and threw it away before picking up his boots – he’d been in socks since coming back from hunting – and leaving the stage.

The next scene change was covered by a procession of soldiers yomping their way round the outside of the stage from right to left. When they reached the middle, the first lot of soldiers carried on, but after a while some of them peeled off and came up the walkway. We weren’t sure whether they’d just decided it was time to go or whether they’d had orders to leave, but it was a graphic way to underline Lear’s loss of followers and worked pretty well. By the time they’d all gone through, Lear and the Fool were left at the front of the stage with the suitcases, Lear having sent Kent off with the letters to Gloucester. Kent was accompanied by another soldier, but he also disappeared from view during the off-stage journey.

Lear was very distracted by thoughts of his treatment of Cordelia compared to Goneril’s ingratitude, and the Fool’s approach didn’t help. Lear’s response “because they are not eight” suggested it was an old riddle, so the Fool’s praise seemed inappropriate. I wasn’t sure if Lear’s “I would not be mad” was said to the Fool as a request for help or just generally, but Lear was calm and lucid at this point, calmer than he’d been during the rest of the play so far. The Fool’s final lines were indeed “cut shorter” – a blessed relief.

The next turn of the revolve brought us into Edmund’s bedroom. A bed on the left and a desk on the right with a chair are all I remember from this set, but it was an unusual room in many ways. Curran arrived bearing a tray of food for Edmund, and they had their little chat about the “likely wars…twixt the two Dukes of Cornwall and Albany”; all nice and clear so we knew what was going on. With Curran gone, Edmund took a knife out of the drawer, spoke his aside to the audience and then took the tray over to the bed. He called for his brother, who emerged from behind it (had he been underneath?) and ate some of the food while they were talking. He didn’t get much down him though, as Edmund started shouting and threw the tray against the wall. Edgar held his hands over his ears while this was going on, and then fled up the centre aisle; for once Edmund gave the pursuing servants accurate directions to follow him. Before that though, Edmund drew his own blood, a humorous incident as he was clearly reluctant and it took some time for him to get the job done. It was wasted at this point however, as his father ignored the injury when he arrived, more intent on capturing his other son.

While this was going on we could hear the sound effects of cars arriving and doors slamming. Since the Duke of Gloucester was now in Edmund’s bedroom, the only sensible way to stage the arrival of Regan and her husband Cornwall was to have them walk straight into that room, which they did. I can understand the reasoning – that was where Gloucester was, after all – but it still seemed bizarre, especially as they came down the centre aisle; passing Edgar on their way in, by any chance?

Regan was wearing a fur coat, a sure sign of villainy these days, and used her scarf to bind up Edmund’s wound. Cornwall actually checked the wound after she’d done this, lifting up the edge of the scarf to give the gash a long look before acknowledging Edmund’s “childlike office” with a kiss. I noticed Regan and Cornwall had brought three servants with them. I say servants; they looked more like bodyguards in their dark suits and had a subtle air of menace in the way they moved.

Now for our chance to see the outside of Gloucester’s home, and judging by the large statue of Lear in the grounds it must have been quite some estate. The statue slowly revolved round until it was facing the audience, and when Kent came on he sat on the sizeable plinth to have a snack. Oswald soon arrived and was subjected to a string of insults from the older man. When these rich epithets failed to move Oswald, Kent had another go but with much the same result. A third attempt, with Kent right in Oswald’s face, was quite funny, but still Oswald wasn’t concerned until Kent took out a knife and threatened him. The younger man threw away the slim case he’d been carrying and he was held upside down for a few moments until Cornwall and the rest came out to see what was going on.

Kent was soon in trouble for his thinly veiled insult, which those present on stage simply laughed at. However the mood changed when Cornwall called for the stocks. He took off his belt, and as he came towards Kent it looked at first as if he was going to hit him, but instead Cornwall put the belt round Kent’s neck and dragged him to the plinth where he ended up sitting along from Regan; she had been sitting on the base of the statue all this while with a drink. When the chains were brought on, Cornwall removed his belt from Kent’s neck and replaced it round his own waist. As they left the stage, I could see that Oswald was smirking at Kent’s punishment.

Kent read the letter by moonlight and as he nodded off, the statue turned round a little while Edgar limped past it in the dark. He delivered most of his lines near the front of the stage, and as he came to “The country gives me proof…”, the panels at the rear of the stage rose up and we could see a ragged line of the homeless and dispossessed standing along the back wall. Edgar finished his lines and then joined then, slotting readily into place. With the panels lowered again, the statue turned back so that Kent was immediately in front of Lear as he came on carrying his suitcase (and how often had he done that in his life?). He was accompanied by the Fool with his trolley, and about ten soldiers. The soldiers split into two groups, one lot sitting front left and the others hunkering down back right while Lear spoke with Kent.

We could hear sounds of revelry inside the house, which rather suggested that Cornwall’s future excuse of being ill would be a serious shortfall in the truth department. When Lear left to find someone to complain to, the soldiers at the back followed him in – his “Follow me not; stay there” had been addressed to Kent – and the others just left. With most productions of King Lear I wonder if the Fool will recognise Kent, but the disguise was actually better than usual so there was no glimmer of recognition during their brief conversation.

Lear had a mug of something in his hand when he returned with Gloucester, which was a nice touch and brought out the fact that Gloucester himself was still very much a Lear supporter. Lear was calmer at this point, but when he sat down on the plinth beside Kent his temper started up again. Cornwall and the others came out, and I noticed that Regan’s outfit was a rather lacy affair which may have been a negligee or a slinky dress; given her portrayal as a touchy-feely sex kitten, it could have been either. Despite Simon Russell Beale’s normally impeccable delivery of the lines, the rant against Goneril wasn’t clear, but we got the gist. For “to scant my money” (“scant my sizes” in my text), Lear held out his wallet, open, for Regan to see how bad things had been with Goneril – she pushed it back towards him.

Goneril arrived and was greeted warmly by Regan, though not so warmly as to include hugs. Lear’s choice to stay outside instead of returning with Goneril was very clear, but I did find myself wondering why he didn’t just ask to stay with Gloucester for the night? After all, he’s obviously got a huge house, and he is an old friend and loyal supporter – note the statue – but that wouldn’t serve the story, of course. When Lear was saying his farewell to Goneril, I could see that he was distressed to be losing her, but still so angry that he couldn’t keep from cursing her as well. His “I gave you all” was shouted, with Regan screaming back “And in good time you gave it” – more like two kids fighting in the sandpit than mature adults (so perfectly in character, then).

After the Dutch auction on Lear’s followers, he took several seconds to respond to “What needs one?” He had his head in his hands at first, and when he did go through the “reckon not the need” speech he was still trying to reason with his daughters. He went to hug Regan but she pushed him away, and although the delivery was clear, his later lines failed to move me to any sympathy for Lear whatsoever, a most unusual situation. Lear left via the walkway followed by his much reduced retinue and Gloucester.

There had been a gradual build-up of storm noises during this scene, so Cornwall’s announcement “’Twill be a storm” came as no surprise. The remaining lords and ladies retired to shelter, leaving Kent to talk with First Gentleman near the front of the stage. During their chat, the statue disappeared round the back, clouds scudded across the back wall, the sky darkened (or the light dimmed, depending on your preference) and Lear and the Fool came down the walkway while Kent was describing them. (My text says First Gentleman does the description of Lear and the Fool, but my notes say Kent.)

As Lear and the Fool came onto the stage, the central strip which linked with the walkway at the front began to rise up at the far end, and with the slow revolve, the two men ended up quite high above the stage towards the front with Lear standing on the edge of the ramp and the Fool hunched down clutching his leg. No rain as such, just the sound of it pelting down, and while I’m not attached to the use of real water as such, this staging seemed very detached from the harsh conditions Lear was facing; a bit too antiseptic for my taste. This was made worse by the rather clumsy delivery of some of the lines, and on the whole it was a case of style over substance. The ramp had to be lowered to allow Lear and the Fool to leave the stage with Kent, and this wasn’t as effective as the gradual rising. Lear hugged the Fool during The Rain It Raineth, and sadly we got the Fool’s prophesy, a section I’m always happy to miss although Adrian Scarborough did as good a job as one could hope for.

Gloucester and Edmund had their conversation outside the house; they were wearing their coats and carried torches, and looked as if they’d just popped out for a fag break. Gloucester was also in a hugging mood, clasping Edmund in a fatherly embrace before heading off to find Lear by torchlight.

We were now down to a bare stage, with the hovel being accessed through a trapdoor towards the back left. (At least it was back left initially – the revolve kept moving.) From the little I read of the program notes beforehand, I knew that Sam Mendes considered the line “I have ta’en too little care of this” to mean that Lear has deliberately ignored the plight of the homeless and vulnerable in his society, but I think it can also be read as a lack of awareness of the sufferings some people go through. In terms of this production, it meant Lear shedding clothes twice during this scene. The first occasion happened just after the prayer section “Poor naked wretches…” when Lear took off his jacket and boots, and the shout of the Fool and Poor Tom’s arrival put a stop to anything further. The second was in the usual place – “Off, off, you lendings!”, but there are other matters to report before that.

Poor Tom was indeed cold, probably because he was completely naked. He was carrying a blanket, but it was not draped about his person in any way. A brave decision, and helped to underpin Lear’s “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” Tom was holding the cloth over his groin for the Fool’s “Nay, he reserved a blanket…” and wrapped it round himself a little later.

Prior to that, Edgar went through Poor Tom’s back story, ending up at the front of the stage for “dolphin, my boy, my boy.” He then did a lengthy mime of walking a horse round on a long rein – i.e. Tom stayed in the ‘middle’ and turned as the ‘horse’ went round him with the hand holding the reins extended out. He was doing this all through Lear’s following speech, and while it illustrated Lear’s lines rather well, it was also a bit distracting as well as putting the emphasis on Edgar rather than Lear. Mind you, that was only until Lear took off his trousers; he was now down to his underpants and shirt. This time he was interrupted by the sight of a torch coming down the walkway – Gloucester had arrived.

Naturally Edgar did his best to avoid his father when he turned up; this was when he wrapped the blanket around himself. Lear’s private conversation with “this philosopher” was held near the front of the stage, with Edgar and Lear sitting on the edge of the hovel entrance thanks to the continued revolving. As Kent and Gloucester came over that way for their talk, Edgar could hear everything his father said about him and it was clearly a difficult experience for him. When Kent and Gloucester came to take Lear away, Edgar ducked away from them. The Fool was finding things difficult too – I noticed he took a swig out of a bottle during this scene, and things were only going to get worse.

They left in a chain with Edgar leading, as Poor Tom chanted “Child Roland to the dark tower came” etc. A panel came down for Cornwall’s chat with Edmund, and there was just enough time in that short scene for the backstage crew to turn the area behind it into a storage shed on the Gloucester estate. The panel rose on a number of packing crates, a brand new bath (waiting to be installed, presumably) and a metal toilet, while the workmen would no doubt appreciate the table on the right with a tea urn and related accessories. Kent laid a pallet front right to make up a bed for Lear, covering it with a blanket, but the king was intent on trying his ungrateful daughters for their crimes. He put the metal toilet and the urn at the front of the stage and insisted that the others take their seats on the edge of the bath to judge the case. He then went over to the right hand side of the stage and stood on a packing case to make his accusations, and the Fool’s “I took you for a joint-stool”, directed at the toilet, got a good laugh.

After that, Lear completely lost it. He went wild, and in his rage attacked the Fool, who fell back into the bath and was bludgeoned (to death?) by his master. It was mildly shocking to see, although we’re always aware that the absence of the Fool after this scene has to be accounted for in some way, but when Lear asked “Is there any cause in nature that makes this hardness?” I was very ready to answer, “Yes, terrible fathers”. Kent managed to get Lear over to the pallet and lay him down; in response to Lear’s “We’ll go to supper i’th’ morning”, the Fool’s bloodied hand rose up from the bath as he responded with “and I’ll go to bed in the afternoon”. They just about got away with it; it could have been comical, but for me it simply fell flat.

Gloucester and Kent helped Lear away soon afterwards, and as he was led past the bath, Lear looked into it and was horrified by what he saw – presumably he was unaware of what he’d done in his mad fit, although some memory may have filtered through. Kent took him away as fast as he could. Edgar spoke the final speech while the stage turned in preparation for the next scene, and the bloody bath was soon out of sight.

Cornwall and Regan were seeing Goneril off from Gloucester’s wine cellar, apparently. You’d have thought Gloucester’s place would have had more traditional entrance foyers, but instead we got Edmund’s bedroom and the wine cellar. The darkness and modern fittings also gave the impression of some swish pub owned by a gangster; appropriate but not entirely in keeping with the settings so far. There was a lot of kissing and canoodling between Regan and Cornwall, just in case we hadn’t realised that Regan had a strong sexual appetite.

When Gloucester was brought on he had a cloth bag over his head, and he was soon tied to a chair on the right of the stage. Then came the inevitable waterboarding moment: Cornwall’s henchmen tipped the chair back and one of them poured water over the bag for a bit. They let Gloucester up a couple of times while Regan and Cornwall interrogated him, and finally he attempted an answer. Regan snatched the bag off his head on “Wherefore to Dover?” and I was happy to see them turn the chair round so that Gloucester had his back to the audience for the nasty bit. Given the location, the use of a corkscrew as an eye-gouging implement was fairly predictable, and Regan was fascinated by the process. She was also very practical in her recommendation to take out the other eye, laughed when it was out and was very competent in despatching the servant who attacked Cornwall. All in all, not someone you’d want to meet down a dark alley.

With the deed done, mercifully out of sight (oops, that was an unfortunate phrase) Gloucester was left kneeling on the stage facing the audience while Regan got a towel to stem Cornwall’s wound. She seemed genuinely worried for him but didn’t like having his blood on her hands; whether that was because of the mess or the meaning behind the blood I couldn’t say. She started to help her husband off, but one of the servants took over the job. The other two servants said their few lines and also left, so the final image before the interval was of Gloucester struggling to get to his feet and then turning to face us with his bloody eye sockets.

The second half began in darkness and with drum rolls of thunder. Poor Tom, who had found some clothes to wear, was sitting in front of a wall, cup out in front of him, and saying “Tom’s a-cold” etc. as various people walked past, including a couple of soldiers. One or two of the passers-by gave him some money. When these folk had gone, Edgar gave us his “Yet better thus” speech until Gloucester was led on by a servant. As Edgar knelt to one side, his father went through a short but very moving speech – in Stephen Boxer’s hands it was a masterclass on delivery – and from Edgar’s reactions I was aware that a reconciliation of sorts was going on between father and son. I found this part very moving, even to sniffles, and it was the first time I felt engaged by the performance; the concept had so stifled even Simon Russell Beale’s talent that I hadn’t felt involved up to this point. Gloucester gave Poor Tom a wallet as the “purse” and they left the stage with Edgar walking behind his father.

The next scene revealed Goneril and Edmund having a serious snog; they leapt apart when Oswald came through the door. Goneril took a chain from her own neck and gave it to Edmund and then they kissed again, with Oswald moving to the door to keep a lookout. When Albany came on he was more stroppy than usual, and even grabbed Goneril by the throat during his criticism of her and her sister. He didn’t carry through though, which led to her comment “Milk-livered man”. When the messenger arrived with news of Cornwall’s death, it was clear that Albany and Goneril were hearing completely different versions of the information. She was hearing that her sister was now free to marry Edmund – she walked around looking concerned during the messenger’s report – while Albany was shocked to hear about Gloucester’s blinding and the subsequent events and knelt to have a quick prayer during Goneril’s aside.

The next short scene had Kent hearing from a soldier how Cordelia had received Kent’s letter, much edited, and then the stage opened up for the final scenes. The back panel rose up and there were two large swathes of cornfield along the back, separated by a central gap. Blue sky and clouds were projected above them. There were soldiers lined up along the front of the corn and a number of military doctors on stage, mostly women. Cordelia was also present, in uniform and carrying a rifle, and she soon sent everyone off to find her father.

The ‘sky’ darkened, and the next things we saw was a procession of umbrellas accompanied by the sound of rain and a chiming bell. It took me a little while to realise that this was Cornwall’s funeral – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it referenced in previous productions – and Regan came forward from the line of mourners to talk with Oswald. She was now wearing a short tailored jacket and trousers, and snatched the letter to Edmund out of Oswald’s hands, reading it before giving it back to him along with her advice. Her liveliness at her husband’s funeral was a clear indication that she had no intention of staying single for long.

The next scene was the pretend cliffs of Dover, and for this the walkway rose up again a little, just enough for Gloucester to be fooled by a shallow drop in the middle of the stage. I found it funny when Edgar said it was “fearful to cast one’s eyes so low”, and I could see he was working hard to find the details to make his description of the non-existent cliff believable to his father. Having moved away a little from his father when he’d been told to go, Edgar turned his back briefly when Gloucester said “if Edgar live, o bless him”, and he echoed Gloucester’s roaring when the elder man threw himself off the ‘cliff’. At the bottom of the ‘cliff’, Gloucester actually tried to look up when Edgar told him to, before exclaiming that he had “no eyes”. Edgar paused after “A had a thousand”, and took a few moments to think of “noses”.

When Lear arrived he was wearing a blue medical gown and what looked like the Fool’s hat. His feet were bare and he was also carrying a plastic bag and some flowers. He handed Edgar a flower on a long stem for his “press money” and then spotted a mouse over by the ramp. He emptied the plastic bag on the ramp and various items fell out, including a newspaper and a banana which Lear peeled to get some “toasted cheese”. Edgar held out the flower he’d been given when he came up with the password “sweet marjoram”; I don’t know what that plant looks like, but it made sense that the gift of the flower would suggest that response and also satisfy Lear.

After all this activity, Lear took his newspaper and sat down on the end of the ramp to read it. Gloucester sat beside him, and when Lear referred to “yon simpering dame” he held the paper out to Gloucester and Edgar in turn to show them a picture. There was more groin-clutching for the “smells of mortality” section, and Lear held his hand out to Gloucester when asking for “an ounce of civet”. He looked under Gloucester’s bandages at one point and proffered the newspaper to Edgar on “read this challenge”. His rant against officialdom was very clear, and I noted his derogatory reference to “the great image of authority” – it was “authority” which Kent saw in Lear’s face and “would fain call master”.

I had two difficulties with this section. Firstly, I didn’t find Lear’s insights convincing; they seemed superficial rather than hard-won realisations. The second thing that troubled me a little was that Lear kept scratching his left buttock. Unless Simon Russell Beale has an itchy rash which we know nothing about, this mannerism looked like something an actor might pick up from research into ‘mad’ people and then use to try and make their performance more convincing; didn’t work for me.

Gloucester found Lear’s feet were bare when he tried to pull off his boots, so to satisfy the insistent king he mimed pulling them off. The doctors and soldiers appeared at the back of the stage and stood there for a while to let the stars finish their scene. Gloucester collapsed back onto Lear, who embraced him and held him until he stood up to preach – “I will preach to thee”. He tapped Gloucester’s head – Gloucester was still sitting down – which led to “this is a good block”. Lear picked up the remnants of the bunch of flowers and wrung them to bits on “kill, kill, kill”, at which point the doctors intervened. One of them held out a straightjacket, and Lear put his arms into it, allowing himself to be strapped in. He kissed the medic in front of him as the jacket was fastened at the back, and although he tried to run away, the soldiers easily caught him and held him while he was given an injection.

There had been helicopter noises going on while this was happening, reminding us that a battle was fast approaching. Edgar looked round for a stick for his father to use and then helped him to stand up. Just then some soldiers walked across the stage followed by Oswald. That seemed a bit odd: if the soldiers were of the French faction, why would Oswald be with them? If they were on the sisters’ side, surely they would have grabbed Gloucester themselves? However, they just kept going across and off the stage without showing any interest in these two ragged people, and it was only Oswald who confronted the old man and his helper. Having drawn a knife, Oswald looked a bit braver than he had against Kent earlier, but a strong “Nay” from Edgar made him back off. He still attacked but, despite being armed with only a stick, Edgar soon beat him and stabbed Oswald with his own dagger. There was a slight reaction from Edgar when Oswald told him to take the letter to “Edmund, Earl of Gloucester”, and he dragged the dead body off stage while Gloucester gave us his final lines.

For the next scene, the panel came down to show us that we were inside somewhere, and a hospital bed with drawn curtains was wheeled on stage. Cordelia greeted Kent joyfully, and then the curtains were drawn back to reveal Lear asleep in the bed and connected up to a drip. Someone adjusted the drip and Lear moved, then Cordelia went over and kissed him on the forehead. Cordelia was fairly bellowing her lines in this scene; it was no surprise when her father woke up, just that it had taken so long! He woke up suddenly and half-raised himself on one elbow, then sat up fully. He really hurt himself on “I feel this pinprick”, and “I am a very foolish fond old man” was the first sign of returning sanity. As he and the crying Cordelia knelt together in front of the bed, he touched her face and then tasted the tears on his fingers. A door was opened – we could see a soldier standing guard outside – and when Lear was asked “Will it please your highness walk?” he nodded eagerly. He held out his hand to Cordelia as he went and she took it.

While the stage crew set up the original room with its long table again, Edgar brought Gloucester on to the front of the stage and sat him down on a stack of boxes and trunks to wait out the fighting. As I recall, Albany was sitting at one end of the long table during Edgar’s lines (scene 23) and was confronted by Edmund and Regan coming on at the opposite end. They had their usual disagreement, with Edgar slipping Goneril’s letter into Albany’s possession at the appropriate moment. When Edmund was alone on stage later he debated his choice of sisters with the audience, but sadly without generating any humour.

For the battle, there were more sounds off stage – helicopters, gunfire – and some flame, smoke and light effects on stage. When the lights came back up on Gloucester, Edgar soon arrived to take him away and led him round to the walkway. Gloucester collapsed just off the stage, right by us, and Edgar crouched down to check on him. The next scene was then played out on the stage. Lear and Cordelia were brought on with their hands tied and sat on chairs beside each other on the near side of the table, and Lear kissed her before they were taken away again. This time I noticed that Edmund’s uniform was very Nazi-like; a deliberate choice, I’m sure. The line “Jesters do oft prove prophets” was included, which is unusual.

When Albany and the sisters arrived, the sibling rivalry soon broke out into nastiness. Goneril threw her drink over Regan, who was soon writhing in pain. She fell to the ground and crawled under the table where she presumably died. Now we come to the excellent piece of editing I mentioned earlier. When Edmund asked who called him a traitor, Edgar got up from the walkway and answered him immediately. No announcing the challenge to the massed ranks off stage, no blowing of the trumpet, no unknown assailant either – Edgar told them straight out who he was. He held up his knife and went to hug his evil brother, then stabbed him. This was a wonderful staging choice, not only cutting the running time but changing the play significantly enough to keep regular viewers on their toes. It also bypassed one of the tricky issues – how to make a fight between Edmund and Edgar believable, especially when Edgar has to win.

This quickie murder of Edmund – who didn’t revive – was followed by Albany showing Goneril the letter. She went and sat on the other side of the stack of crates, crying, while Edgar explained how he had nursed his father. On “burst smilingly”, Goneril rose up, took a knife and cut her own throat, so that was her gone. Another advantage of this staging was that the dead bodies were piling up nicely without having to be dragged back on stage.

Kent arrived, and just as Albany was going to ask the dead Edmund where Lear was, we got the first “Howl” from the back of the stage. Lear carried Cordelia from the back entrance to the table and laid her on it. He tore off a small piece of paper to check her breath – it stood in for the feather – and he put his ear near her mouth to listen to her on “her voice was ever soft and low”. He came round to the front of the table and sat down, eventually pulling Cordelia into his arms and cradling her for a while, rocking gently. When he mentioned that his “poor fool is hanged”, there was a long pause before the word “hanged” as if he were haunted by the truth and didn’t want to admit it. Then he laid Cordelia on the floor and knelt beside her. He was suddenly unable to breathe properly. Kent tried to help him but Lear collapsed and, after one attempt to look up, lay still. Kent was very emphatic that Lear was to be left at peace.

With the dead bodies comfortably outnumbering the live ones on stage, Albany made the usual offer to Kent and Edgar. Kent turned it down and left the stage, as did Albany. Alone with the dead, Edgar sat down on a chair and spoke the final lines which ended the play, but his delivery was rather flat, and I had no sense of the likely future from that or from the staging. Still, it had been a thoughtful if not entirely satisfactory performance, and there was plenty of applause and standing for the curtain calls.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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