King Lear – April 2016

Experience: 9/10

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Max Webster

Produced by The Royal and Derngate in association with ATG

Venue: The Royal, Northampton

Date: Tuesday 12th April 2016

We’ll go a long way for a good Shakespeare production, and we were more than eager to see Michael Pennington give us his King Lear. We weren’t disappointed: although some aspects of the production could have been stronger, there was no mistaking the majestic central performance, and with his skill in delivering the lines, there was also no need for any gimmicks to support the performances. Shakespeare neat, on the rocks: just how we like it.

The set for this production suggested an industrial building with hints of castle walls. The well-raked stage had wooden floorboards running side to side. Mottled grey walls on either side, three on the left, two on the right, allowed for plenty of entrances. A wide gap between the two back walls showed a dimly lit rear section with a backdrop which, I gradually realised, showed the silhouette of a hill sloping up to the right and a dark, stormy sky. The left rear wall had a tall thin window with small panes, and a narrow strip of wall went across most of the stage from this side, above the side walls. The right rear wall had a larger window. The walls were mostly plain, but did have some moulding which suggested a factory or similar, but they were blank enough to hint at a castle wall – ‘warehouse chic’, as Steve put it. There were no steps up to the stage, which was something of a relief, as we were sitting slap bang in the middle of the front row, a worrying place when audience participation is on the cards.

From the production photos in the foyer, I guessed that the costumes were roughly 1930s in style, perhaps a little earlier. Later, I wondered if they had been cashing in on the Downton effect, as the general impression was of an English country house of that era. This was particularly noticeable at the start, the one strange addition to the play. The lights went down, and Cordelia walked onto the stage, alone, dressed as for a shooting party and carrying a shotgun. She stood in a spotlight and after a few moments she fired at something. A bell started chiming, most of the cast came on behind her and they were all chanting as they formed up into a grid. I have no idea what this was meant to convey, but when it stopped and the cast left, a curtain dropped down at the back, covering the gap, and a chandelier was also lowered to create the effect of a posh room.

Gloucester and Kent came on, with Edmund making a discrete entrance behind them. After introducing him to Kent, Gloucester held Edmund as he talked of his “making” (although from my notes he may have used the word “getting”) and it quickly became apparent that this Gloucester was very touchy-feely, at least with Edmund. I saw no reaction to Gloucester’s comment regarding Edmund that “away he shall again”, so there were no early clues as to Edmund’s feelings about his father or his situation. Kent’s accent was a bit shaky, and from his later Scottish accent as Caius, I suspect this actor was finding it hard to keep the RP going. It made his Kent seem a bit stilted at first, but once he had been in disguise for a few scenes we warmed to him, and his later return to the Kent persona worked much better.

A trumpet announced the king’s arrival. Chairs were brought on – three, daughters, for the use of – and a large easel was placed back right with a huge map of Britain placed on it. As I recall, the map was slightly inaccurate, in the style of older maps, but with a lot of detail as well.

One of the sisters came on carrying a baby, and we quickly (and accurately) deduced that this had to be Regan: Lear’s curse against Goneril later on suggests she’s childless at that point. Lear came on with Cordelia, and all was happiness and light. Goneril sat back left, Regan to the right and Cordelia front left, with the elder sisters’ husbands standing behind their wives.

When Lear began to express his “darker purpose”, he took off his diadem and handed it to a servant who placed it on the cushion he was carrying and moved to the background. His question to his daughters – “which of you shall we say doth love us most?” – was asked cheerfully, never doubting that he would get a positive response from them all. Goneril, first up as usual, was polished in her reply, suggesting that this wasn’t the first time she’d had to butter the old man up. When he turned his back to mark the map showing her prize, a look of cunning came to her face, and she peered round her father, trying to see how much she was getting. I think she was fairly satisfied, but perhaps she just put the smile back on her face to keep her father sweet.

It was easy for Cordelia to deliver her asides from her front left chair, and we were treated to all of them tonight. I think Regan must have handed the baby off to someone before she spoke, but I didn’t spot to whom or when. Her flattery was just cringe-making, as she tried to outdo her sister with a ‘smarm’ offensive. Lear dished out her reward and then turned to the one he really wanted to hear this stuff from – Cordelia. When she said “nothing, my lord”, it was clear that her father was already psychologically fragile, and as her stubborn resistance to indulge his whims continued, we could see that Lear was starting to crack up then and there. He was hurt by Cordelia’s response, and that led to his temper tantrum. Cordelia herself was being very matter-of-fact about it all: she didn’t want to hurt her father, but she couldn’t tell a lie.

When France and Burgundy came on, Cordelia, by now quite upset herself, ran to one of them and hugged him. This was an interesting choice, showing that Cordelia had already developed a relationship with one of her suitors, who turned out to be Burgundy. He seemed equally as keen on her, which made his rejection of her a few moments later all the more unpleasant and more of a blow to Cordelia. When Burgundy made a final plea to Lear to provide the dowry which he’d promised, Lear pointed a finger at Cordelia and very deliberately said “nothing”, looking her straight in the eye as he echoed her word, and giving a little laugh as well. Not a nice man.

Cordelia was fighting back tears as Burgundy told her the wedding was off, but rallied to give him a tart dismissal. Fortunately, the king of France was there to “take up what’s cast away”, and it certainly came across that it was Cordelia’s behaviour in adversity which France found attractive. Cordelia wasted no effort on being nice to her sisters as she bid them farewell, and they responded in similar vein.

Edmund came on once the royal family had all left the stage. He was tall, with striking features and a languid manner. He came to the front of the stage to give us his opinion of legitimacy versus bastardy: being a bastard himself, it’s not surprising which side he came down on. He had a letter in his hand when he arrived, and tucked it away during his speech, but brought it out just before his father came on and started reading it. Naturally Gloucester was intrigued, and it was almost too easy for Edmund, protesting his reluctance, to give his father the letter which would start his plan rolling. Gloucester was only too ready to believe that Edgar, his natural son, was plotting to kill his own father, which doesn’t say much for his parenting skills.

Gloucester’s comments about “these late eclipses of the sun and moon” led nicely into Edmund’s diatribe against “whoremaster man”, passing the buck when it came to all sorts of villainy. Edgar arrived on his cue and was dressed for a formal occasion, except that he’d taken his dinner jacket off and loosened his tie. He was carrying a bottle of wine and smoking a cigarette, and was a bit drunk, so perhaps that helped Edmund to convince his half-brother that their father was angry with Edgar. In the process, Edmund took the bottle from Edgar, and when he handed him a knife so that he could “go armed”, he got the cigarette as well. Thus when he came back to the front of the stage to give us a progress report, he had the wine and ciggie with him, suggesting how easily he would take everything else from Edgar.

When he left, Lear and a small group of his followers came on at the back and prepared for the day’s hunting. While they were doing this, Kent came on at the front to talk us through his change of identity, removing his glasses and pulling on a woollen cap to match his rougher clothes. He mentioned a change of accent, but it wasn’t till he first spoke as Caius that his choice of a Scottish accent became apparent. In the meantime, he withdrew to the side.

For no reason that I could see, the group of hunters had screwed up some sheets of paper and dropped them on the stage here and there. It was left to Oswald, wielding a wide broom, to clean them up, and it was during this task that Goneril came on and expressed her dissatisfaction with her father and his followers.

When the hunters returned, a few moments later, they had been fairly successful – a couple of pheasants were hung up on the back wall. Kent presented himself to Lear, and while he went through his CV, Lear sat on a bench and one of his followers cleaned his boots for him; he had five followers at this point. Oswald came through carrying a crate of bottles and was suitably brusque towards Lear, and when he was brought back on to explain himself, Lear attacked him first before Kent tripped him up. Oswald ran off to tell Goneril, and then the Fool arrived.

The Fool is an important aspect of this play, and we’re always keen to see this first entrance to get a sense of how a production intends to use him. This Fool was wearing a housecoat over cut-off trousers and a string vest. He had a knitted ‘coxcomb’ hat with ear flaps and a Mohican tuft across the top, and had lipstick smeared over his mouth area. He also carried a concertina, and did a fair amount of singing. One thought that occurs to me as I write, is that both the Fool and Ophelia, when she’s gone mad, sing a lot of their lines – is this significant?

The Fool was clearly still unhappy with Lear for banishing Cordelia, not to mention giving away his kingdom, but he made an effort to be lively. His comment “can you make no use of nothing, uncle?” hit Lear hard; he winced when his response “nothing can be made of nothing” reminded him of recent events. For the “give me an egg, nuncle” routine, the Fool did a chicken impression, which the group of followers found hugely entertaining. He made good use of the egg which he ‘laid’, all in mime of course.

The confrontation between Lear and his eldest daughter was good, although Goneril’s contribution could have been stronger. It led to Lear’s peremptory decision to leave, and a short while later a trunk and suitcase appeared at the back of the stage. His ranting showed us that his mental stability was beginning to totter even before he uttered his horrific curse against his own daughter. To be fair to the production, I was so taken with Michael Pennington’s marvellous delivery that I didn’t even glance at Albany to see his reaction to this outrageous behaviour, but as Goneril was in my eye line I noticed her flinch a little at his words. But I had the impression that she was also determined to stay strong and not show her reaction too much – these daughters are all as self-willed as their father. Of course, the fact that we’d seen Regan with a baby underlined the fact that Goneril, so far as we could see, was childless, and presumably that would be a concern for her. I usually find that I have some feelings of sympathy for her at this point, but they don’t last long given her subsequent actions.

Lear huddled with one or two of his men and possibly the Fool at the back of the stage while Albany and Goneril exchanged a few words, then he came back to the front to exclaim about losing half of his followers. After a bit more ranting, and a not-so-subtle threat, Lear stormed off, leaving his Fool cowering by the right back wall, trying not to be noticed. Goneril and Albany began their argument, and when the Fool tried to move, he accidentally caused the concertina to make a sound. Goneril swung round, saw him and made it very clear that he was no longer welcome to stay. Goneril then sent Oswald off to her sister with a letter, before telling her husband off for his “milky gentleness”. Unfortunately, for such a good, text-based production, we were stuck with Albany’s final half-line “well, well, the event”, which tops my list of Shakespearean dialogue most in need of emendation: it simply doesn’t make sense – change it or drop it!

Minor gripe aside, I was seriously enjoying this performance by now. Lear sent Kent off with a letter of his own to Regan, and then sat on his trunk which had been placed right of centre. The Fool joined him, and Lear’s psychological disintegration continued. The Fool did his best to distract him from his worries – makes a change from his earlier jibes – but Lear couldn’t stop brooding on his mistreatment by Goneril and, more importantly, his own mistreatment of Cordelia. His “I did her wrong” was heart-achingly sad, and his prayer “o, let me not be mad, sweet heaven! I would not be mad” was way too late – he was already too far gone. When the horses were ready they left the stage, and this time, given the emotional mood they had created, the Fool’s comments about maids were thankfully expunged.

Curan made an appearance tonight, and brought us up to speed on the Duke of Cornwall’s arrival and the possibility of civil war between Albany and Cornwall. He obviously knew the value of his information, because he held out his hand at the end and Edmund gave him a coin for his trouble. Or perhaps Curan was simply one of Edmund’s spies. Either way, Edmund now had some useful intelligence which he put to good use during his short talk with Edgar. Edgar was now dressed more casually, and as usual he was easily duped into a ‘mock’ fight with his half-brother. For once they did appear to do some ‘real’ fencing with their knives, but Edgar was soon running off stage while Edmund came right down to the front so we could see all the gory details of his self-inflicted wound – eugh. His father was enraged, and Edmund’s plan was definitely working, as Gloucester was eager to reward his supposed loyalty by making him heir to the Dukedom.

When the Cornwalls turned up, Regan was carrying her baby; the nurse with the pram was behind them. They discussed Edgar’s betrayal of his father, and then went off to talk through the Lear/Goneril situation with Gloucester. Kent arrived and lurked by the left hand side of the stage, so that when Oswald came on carrying a saddle, he mistook Kent for a servant of the household. Kent’s insults were very well done, each coming across clearly and dripping with contempt; we contributed several laughs along the way. He drew his knife on Oswald, who only had the saddle to defend himself with, and after Oswald was chased round the stage a couple of times, help arrived in the shape of Edmund and some others.

Kent kept the insults going after the Dukes and Duchess arrived too. The Duke of Cornwall laughed heartily when Kent made his comment about having “seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me at this instant”. The others joined in his laughter, but stopped when he did, abruptly. His judgement of Kent wasn’t as malicious as some I’ve seen, but it showed he was a man used to having authority and being obeyed. The stocks were brought out, and placed front left; Kent’s ankles were placed in the holes so that his feet were raised slightly and he had to lie on his back. The others left him there – Oswald had a distinct smirk on his face as he went out – and Kent was left alone to read the letter from Cordelia by moonlight. He took out his glasses to read, half-raising himself up and turning towards us to catch the light, and he left them on when he lay back to sleep. Incidentally, since Oswald hadn’t been armed, they cut his line about sparing Kent’s life, which was fine by me, even though it can be a lot of fun in other productions.

With Kent snoozing in the stocks and the lights lowered on that side, Edgar came on from the back. There were sounds of pursuit, and he grabbed a blanket to hide himself under; the people who came on thought he was a homeless man, so naturally they ignored him. After they left, he explained his predicament to us, and when he talked about disguising himself, he took off his shirt to reveal some nice muscle definition. Wrestling my mind back to the dialogue, I heard him try out some of his possible lines and, frankly, they were poor efforts. Some of his pursuers returned at this point, and in desperation he wrapped the blanket round himself and produced a really convincing “poor Tom”, holding out his hand for charity. This attempt worked so well that the nearest person, a woman, stamped her foot to stop him coming any closer, and they left without realising they had been so close to their quarry. His “that’s something yet” acknowledged this success, and he scampered off to complete his disguise.

The lights came back up as Lear came on with his Fool and two knights – only two. Lear became quite worked up when he found his man in the stocks, and soon left to have words about it with his daughter and son-in-law. The Fool came over to sit on the stocks and have a little chat with Kent, and Steve spotted that the Fool indicated to Kent that he’d left his glasses on – Kent whipped them off and put them in his pocket. We’re not sure if that was intentional – the Fool recognising who Kent was – or an accident, but we’re inclined to the latter view, as there was no other sign that the Fool was in on Kent’s disguise.

The Fool’s comment about it being appropriate to be set in the stocks for asking why the king’s train was so small was supported here by the reduced number of followers, and with the Fool pointing out that anyone with sense leaves “him that’s stinking”, those two remaining followers also slipped away as the scene wore on. The sounds of rain began as the Fool sang “that sir that serves for gain”, and there were minor rumblings all through the scene as the tension built.

When Regan and her husband came on, she ran to Lear and hugged him, and he was happy to see her, but it wasn’t long before her replies made him aware that all was not well. When he pretended to be old – “Dear daughter, I confess that I am old” – he tottered about and the others laughed at his joke. When Goneril arrived, the conspiracy between the two sisters soon became clear, and they drove Lear from anger to acceptance to further anger, and so to insanity. He left with the Fool and Kent; when Kent had been released from the stocks, he was very stiff, but he had loosened up by this time. The others told Gloucester to shut up his house, and the servants came out to close the shutters on the windows and carry the stocks off, while the thunder and lightning effects grew even stronger.

As they left the stage, the set changed. The side walls were pulled back to make a more open space, and the curtain over the back wall fell down and was dragged off. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but a spotlight shone from the front, so that when Lear and the Fool came on for the storm scene, their shadows loomed large behind them. Unfortunately, this light also showed us the back wall in great detail, and as it was in keeping with the others, it made it look as though the scene was taking place inside a factory or warehouse instead of out on a moor. I found this quite distracting, and I felt the scene went much better from around the time that Kent arrived, when that light was turned off and the back wall was hidden in darkness. I don’t know if the spotlight was a mistake or not, but I would have preferred the performance without it.

One good thing about this production, though – they didn’t use real water for the rain. Instead they used small bits of white tissue paper (sample acquired) to represent the raindrops, although with us being so close it looked a bit more like snow. It was being blown on from the side as well, so it swirled around a bit, but overall the effect was pretty good (and far less trouble than the real thing).

With the distractions from the light and shadows, I wasn’t fully aware of Lear’s dialogue at this time, hard though I tried to concentrate. Lear clapped along to the music when the Fool sang, and the hovel was located at the back of the stage. I think that they took the short scene between Gloucester and Edmund at the front of the stage before introducing Poor Tom, the hovel’s current inhabitant. He wasn’t as dirty as some we’ve seen, but he was down to a pair of briefs, and his behaviour certainly seemed mad enough to me. When Gloucester arrived, Tom (Edgar) kept well away from him, sheltering behind Lear when he could. Lear spoke with “this philosopher” towards the back of the stage, allowing Gloucester and Kent to have their conversation at the front, out of earshot, so that Edgar didn’t hear his father’s comments.

I was back in tune with the dialogue by this time, and the development of Lear’s madness, juxtaposed with Edgar’s feigned insanity, was starting to move me deeply. Poor Tom lay huddled near the front of the stage while Lear commented on “unaccommodated man”. Lear had removed his coat and shirt and was starting on his trousers when Kent and the Fool stopped him, with the Fool putting Lear’s coat back on his shoulders. When Gloucester led them off to shelter, the Duke of Cornwall and Edmund had their little scene near the front, and by the time they left there was a large cloth hanging between the rear walls and coming forward to provide a roof, while a bench, some stools and a rolled up mattress were placed ready.

We reckoned that the arraignment scene was shortened a bit, but there was enough for us to get the gist. Lear put his blanket round Tom’s shoulders; by now Edgar was finding it difficult to keep up his pretence, even before his aside “my tears begin to take his part so much…”. The Fool put his coxcomb hat on Tom’s head as they sat down to be the justices, while Kent had been unrolling the mattress and laying it out back left for Lear to sleep on. A stool was placed at the front of the stage to represent Goneril, and after a quick rant, Lear was led to the mattress for a rest. They mimed the closing of curtains, but he had no sooner lain down than Gloucester was back on to hustle them away to safety. I don’t remember how Edgar left – he was still avoiding his father – but the Fool remained behind and stood on the stool to utter his prophecy, which wasn’t as jarring as in some productions. He then left the stage, and we saw no more of him.

The cloth was taken down, a chair was placed back right and Regan, the Duke of Cornwall, Goneril and Edmund all came on together. Goneril and Edmund soon left, allowing Regan and her husband to indulge in a passionate snog, before breaking off to deal with the “traitor”. Gloucester was brought on wearing his dressing gown and was quickly tied to the chair. I don’t think Regan pulled out any of his beard this time – in fact her participation in this scene was low key compared to most – but even before the first eye was out, one of the servants standing behind the chair was looking very uncomfortable at the way things were going. I’ll skip the actual blinding, which I didn’t pay much attention to anyway – they used a bit too much fake blood for me, and there was a big gob of it on Gloucester’s shirt when they’d finished (eugh). The unhappy servant did the usual intervention, fought for a bit with Cornwall and was then stabbed by Regan, who had taken a knife off the other male servant. She then helped her husband off, leaving a maidservant and the other chap to bury the bodies. The maid was caring of the dead servant, laying a jacket over the body, and then the lights came down and they took the interval. Phew.

During the break, the dead body disappeared from the stage and a section of branch, suspended in a wooden box frame, was lowered back left, although the branch curved over the middle of the stage as well. The floor was swept and they replaced various window panes with broken versions. I also spotted some tufts of grass at the back and around the edges of the walls. I liked this approach: too often productions suggest that the kingdom is already broken and decaying, which lessens the impact of Lear’s actions – these things would have happened even if he hadn’t been a silly old man. In this version, the kingdom was doing fine until he made his fateful choice to split it, following that with the abysmal decision to banish the only daughter who truly cared for him. This emphasises Lear’s actions as the cause of the trouble, increases the sense of loss, and helps to keep the focus on Lear’s emotional journey.

Having given us a storm earlier, the second half started with mist. It billowed out quite thickly at first, but had settled down a bit by the time the action got underway. Edgar came on at the back with a bucket of water, and dunked his head to start the clean-up process before launching into “yet better thus…”. The maid led Gloucester on, with a blood-stained bandage round his eyes and using a stick, and Edgar was naturally distressed to see his father’s plight. He did his best to carry on as Poor Tom, but once the maid left he dropped everything but the voice, and led his father gently off the stage.

Goneril and Edmund arrived back at her castle, and it seemed that she had no sooner taken off her coat and given it to Oswald than she was kissing Edmund – a long farewell kiss before he went back to the Duke of Cornwall. Edmund had carried a suitcase onto the stage with him, which Oswald took off along with the coat, so they had a bit of privacy. Albany turned up after Edmund had left, and I found his delivery of the lines and his movements rather jerky at this point. He and Goneril began a domestic tiff, which was interrupted by a messenger with news of Cornwall’s death and Gloucester’s blinding. Goneril was unhappy with this information, though not for the same reasons as her husband, and after she left, some French soldiers entered and stood at the back while Albany and the messenger finished their lines and exited.

Some more French soldiers came on after this, as well as Cordelia and a doctor – he had a red cross on an armband over his military-style costume. A large French flag was spread out behind them all, and there was drumming in the background to support the military theme. Cordelia’s list of the wildflowers was a bit tedious – Will was too fond of listing plants in my view – but the rest of the scene was brisk and got the information across just fine.

With the French forces off the stage, a baby’s crib in the form of a basket plus a table with a drinks tray were placed front left, and Regan came on carrying her baby. She was dressed in mourning black, and put her baby in the basket before interrogating Oswald closely about her sister’s intentions towards Edmund. She went as far as she could go without being arrested for indecency: she opened a button or two on her blouse and knelt down and unzipped Oswald’s trousers, lowering them down a bit so she could get at his… but then he pulled away and tidied himself up while she spoke her mind freely about her intentions regarding Edmund: “more convenient is he for my hand…”. She expressed her frustration by kicking the baby basket, which was both unexpected and shocking, notwithstanding her involvement in the blinding of Gloucester. The baby cried, and Oswald was the one who tended it briefly as they completed the scene. She gave him a ring to take to Edmund, and he was about to leave the stage when she called him back to mention that the killer of Gloucester would be well rewarded, which gave him an opportunity to express his loyalty in a more acceptable fashion.

The furniture and baby basket were whisked off stage for the Dover ‘cliff’ scene. We’re so used to imagining locations on these relatively bare stages, and Shakespeare is so good at creating locations with his words, that I frequently have to remind myself that this scene is not, in fact, set at the top of a cliff, even if Lear’s subsequent appearance means that they are near Dover. The description this time was good, with Edgar taking his father’s stick away when he left him at “th’extreme verge”.

Having ‘fallen’ and survived, Gloucester was persuaded to accept his situation, and then Lear arrived, carrying a coin to demonstrate his opening line. He gave the coin to Edgar on “there’s your press-money”, and the mouse he spotted was in his hand, or so his disordered brain was telling him. I have no idea how Edgar managed to guess the right password – some Lears have the herb about them to give him a clue – but I suspect Lear would accept anything as correct given the state he’s in.

As the scene unfolded, we scarcely needed Edmund’s comments to inform us of the sadness of the occasion. Lear’s observations in this scene remind me of the Fool’s lines earlier in the play – now that he’s lost his wits, Lear sees how things work much better than when he was sane, but he expresses himself more wildly. He tapped Gloucester on the head on “I pardon that man’s life”, and waved the loose end of his belt on “to’t, luxury” – fortunately we were spared some of the crotch-grabbing antics popular in other productions. “Thou rascal beadle” was directed at Edgar, at which he looked concerned, but Lear came over and took his hand for “none doth offend”, which relieved the pressure. As he was barefoot, Gloucester simply had to mime taking off Lear’s boots, and Lear cradled him when the other man began crying. This led to him patting Gloucester’s head again, which triggered the comment “this’ a good block”, and inspired the thought of shoeing “a troop of horse with felt”. Lear was now into thoughts of revenge, and although the soldiers had come on just before this, they stayed back until after the repetitions of “kill”. Once Lear had scampered off stage, the doctor stayed behind to check on Gloucester – kind man – and gave Edgar the information about the upcoming battle.

Edgar was going to take Gloucester off stage, but Oswald came on at the back and spotted the old man. He came forward with his knife drawn – Edgar had moved to one side – and after Oswald had passed him, Edgar attacked him from behind. The fight didn’t last long – Oswald preferred his prey to be helpless – and Gloucester spoke his lines while Edgar dragged the body off stage, returning to help his father off as well.

Cordelia and Kent had their little chat, and then Lear was brought on in a wheelchair, while a gramophone was placed front left for the music. I lost a little bit of Cordelia’s speech as a tickly cough needed my attention – got to it in time, thankfully – and I found their reunion gently moving. They all left together, and then a large table was placed back right with maps laid out in it (I would guess) for battle planning; all I could see were miniature French and English flags on little sticks. Edmund stood behind it, and was there for most of the scene as the British generals gathered. With the sisters’ bickering ended by their departure, Edgar entered at the right side. The guards pointed their guns at him, but Albany waved them away to listen to the man, whose face was shrouded in a balaclava. Albany took the letter from Edgar, and then Edmund returned to provide him with another letter. Albany went off, and Edmund came to the front of the stage to explain his difficult dilemma – which of the two sisters to “take?” There was some humour in this speech, but the villainy came out on top overall, which is fair enough. He picked up a mini French flag from the table as he talked about the coming battle, and took it off with him.

A larger French flag was brought on, along with some soldiers running across the stage. Edgar left Gloucester sitting under the branch near the back of the stage, and then there were soldiers passing through in ones and twos. The battle sounds didn’t block the bird song, which was lovely, and then a stretcher was carried past with the doctor on it – the French were in retreat. Edgar took Gloucester off again, and Lear and Cordelia were led on by Edmund’s troops. Their brief conversation was well done, showing Lear’s new-found tenderness towards his youngest daughter, and then they were led away to prison, with Edmund sending one of his guards after them with special orders.

Albany, Goneril and Regan joined Edmund, and I noticed that Goneril held a mug and wine bottle, while Regan was drinking from another mug. Her sister kindly topped her up during the following conversation, and Regan soon started to feel the effects of the doctored drink. She kissed Edmund after declaring him her “lord and master”, which wiped the smile off Goneril’s face, but she did at least go to her sister to see if she could help when she wasn’t feeling well. Regan backed away from her, suspicion already dawning, but before they could really get into it, Albany arrested Edmund, and we were into the challenge scene.

The trumpeter stood on the stage, and we had the usual three blasts before a door at the back of the stage was opened, noisily. Edmund came through it and stepped up onto the stage; he had a scarf covering the lower half of his face. After a brief exchange, Edgar said “choose thy weapon” – not in my text – referring to a box held open by another soldier. Edmund chose one of the pistols, Edgar took the other, and after standing back to back they walked a few paces away from each other along a diagonal. Then they turned to face one other and, after the soldier dropped a white scarf, fired their pistols. Both missed. Edgar immediately leapt at Edmund, who groped for his knife, but in their struggle Edgar got hold of the knife and stabbed Edmund in the thigh.

With their duel thus resolved, Goneril expressed her concern for Edmund, and Albany produced the letter which proved her adulterous intent (if not an actual adulterous act). She ran off, taking Edmund’s discarded knife, and Edgar revealed his identity, giving those still on stage a brief account of his story. Edmund’s change of heart was interrupted by Kent’s arrival, now back in his original costume and wearing his glasses again. Regan and Goneril’s bodies were brought on stage on a cart, and someone threw back the covering blanket to reveal their faces. Edmund staggered or crawled over to the cart and took Goneril’s hand, before finally mentioning Lear and Cordelia (took his bloody time!) Edmund was carted off and it was only a few seconds later that we heard the first “howl”.

This being Michael Pennington, the “howl”s were excellent, and were followed by Lear himself, dragging Cordelia’s body on stage from the right, the noose still around her neck. He laid her centre front, and used a wisp of her hair to check for her breathing, referring to it as “this feather”. Before he himself died, he straightened Cordelia’s body out, and I think he laid her arms over her chest. After asking for one of his buttons to be undone, he collapsed beside his daughter, and Kent, with the usual comment about a “journey… shortly to go”, took one of the duelling pistols and left the stage; we didn’t hear a shot. Edgar spoke the final lines, the lights came down, and we gave them our wholehearted response, applauding for quite some time, and making up somewhat for the half-empty house.

This was well worth the journey. Michael Pennington’s portrayal was excellent, and while there wasn’t as much detail in the supporting roles compared to some other productions, they were robust performances and fitted well into this version. My only reasons for marking this down from a 10/10 rating would be the lighting issue during the storm scene, and some weaknesses amongst the support, such as Albany’s jerkiness during one scene. But on the whole I would recommend this production to anyone: you won’t hear the king’s lines spoken better anywhere.

© 2016 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

2 comments on “King Lear – April 2016

  1. Thank you very much for this. I saw this production when it was at Oxford, and was very much moved by it. Pennington was a terrific Lear, but I couldn’t help thinking he was head and shoulders above the rest of the cast.

    I was interested in your comment about the Fool and Ophelia. I think the current consensus of opinion is that in the first production, Robert Armin played the Fool, but every time I see or read the play, it seems to me more likely that the same actor would have doubled as Cordelia and the Fool. Not only are the two never on stage together, the Fool’s presence throughout is a constant reminder to Lear of Cordelia: if the two of them are played by the same actor, it will reinforce in the audience’s mind the connection between them, and I often wonder why this doubling is never done in modern productions. (And, of course, when Lear says near the end “And my poor fool is hanged”, he need not specify whether he means Cordelia or the Fool: he means both.)

    Careful doubling of roles is a very potent way, I feel, of drawing parallels between characters, or of bringing characters together in the audience’s mind. I am sure, for instance, that Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene would be rendered all the more potent if the audience had seen the same actor playing Lady Macduff earlier in the play: “the Thane of Fife had a wife – where is she now?” would take on all sorts of resonance.

  2. Good point. We’ve long felt that the Fool and Cordelia have a natural affinity, as well as being entirely compatible in terms of performance, neither being on stage at the same time (Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear excepted). I think the 1990 Renaissance King Lear, with Kenneth Branagh directing Richard Briers, did have Emma Thompson as both the Fool and Cordelia, but I didn’t feel that was a success, mainly because of the Fool’s peculiar behaviour – it seemed to be gimmicky rather than heartfelt. And if I remember correctly, there was an understudy run at the RSC where both parts were understudied by the same actress, which certainly brought out some of the resonances, but given the vast amount of doubling in such performances, it wasn’t possible to really get to the heart of such a significant pairing.
    It would certainly be interesting to see a Lady Macbeth/Lady Macduff double, but I suspect that most directors would shy away from it in case the inexperienced audience members confused the two characters. And I would also like to see someone using Lady Macbeth as Hecate, giving that character the opportunity to find out what’s actually happened to Banquo and tipping her over the edge into the insanity which makes her sleepwalk and then kill herself. It would be bold, but I’d love to see it.

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