King Lear – October 2017

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th October 2017

We’re so glad that Sir Ian McKellen decided to have another go at this part. We found the earlier production, part of the RSC’s Complete Works season, rather dull, but there was no lack of tension and excitement in tonight’s performance. The emotional aspects of the various characters were fully developed this time, while the staging was brisk and the story-telling clear, all of which made for a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience.

The design for this production was much sparser, with simple, clean lines and colour schemes which didn’t distract from the action. The centre of the stage was filled by a large, raised disc, which at the start was covered in red carpet. Around the back of the stage was a panelled grey wall, with the sections being moveable to create various openings – they were all shut for the beginning of the play. The side walls looked like dark brick. And that was it: nice and simple. The costumes were modern, and although we had to accept that this was ‘historical modern’ – no mobile phones, but they did have guns – I found that their choices made it easy to distinguish the characters and their places in this society.

At the start we were plunged into darkness. When a spotlight hit the stage, it showed us Lear himself, studying a sheet of paper for a short while, then putting it into a leather folder and pondering something. At the sound of a distant bong (church bell?) he strode off the stage, and the play proper began with Gloucester (Danny Webb) and Kent (Sinead Cusack) also examining a sheet of paper which they’d taken from their leather folders, and commenting on the King’s attitude to Albany and Cornwall. Both characters looked surprised at what they were reading, so presumably this was their first intimation of Lear’s plans. Edmund appeared at the right of the stage, dressed in a dinner jacket, while Gloucester was in dress uniform and Kent wore a black skirt with matching tights and a pale jacket, very much the efficient businesswoman/politician. While Edmund was being introduced, Kent interjected “Edgar” after Gloucester said, “I have a son, sir” and before “by order of law some year elder than this”, which was a handy hint for anyone not familiar with the play. Edmund kissed her hand following “Lady, I shall study deserving” – a bit cheeky but it didn’t put Kent off him.

The court then assembled for Lear’s arrival. The doors at the back opened wide and a platform was pushed forward which held a podium at the front and a MASSIVE portrait of Lear at the back – taller than the man himself, and only a head and shoulders painting. The podium had a microphone with small flags on either side for France and Burgundy, while the front of the podium was patriotically displaying the Union Jack. Two smaller flags were placed on either side of the desk, which was brought on from the front and placed in front of the podium. With a larger chair behind it and two smaller chairs in front, the set was complete.

Gloucester and Kent stepped to one side, Edmund faded into the background and Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and the two husbands all came on from the front, turning to face Lear once they reached the disk and bowing: all this while singing a patriotic hymn, presumably in praise of their great king. Lear led Cordelia on, and then moved to the back while the rest were bowing and singing, finally taking his place behind the podium. Edgar was also present for once, standing to the right of Lear and holding the cushion for the crown, which Lear took off towards the end of the hymn, joining in himself for the last few bars.

Of those present, some were in suits but a lot wore military uniform, giving a very clear sense of a military-based society. (When I refer to servants in these notes, it may have been either a suit or a uniform – I’ll try to be more specific, but there’s a lot to note up and I’m not getting any younger.) I noticed that the first few bars of the music used to cover the scene change sounded very like Mendelsohn’s Wedding March – a nice touch, especially as Cordelia was in a white dress.

After sending Gloucester off to “attend the Lords of France and Burgundy”, another servant produced a map when instructed and laid it on the table – not a large one: about the size of an Ordinance Survey map unfolded. Lear was talking into the microphone during this speech, and just as well, because the gasps of “what!” from Goneril and Regan when he announced, “know that we have divided in three our kingdom” would have drowned him out otherwise. There were a lot of shocked looks and uneasy glances amongst the onstage audience, which meant that Goneril wasn’t at all comfortable when she started her speech of praise into the microphone.

The director had made no bones about cutting Cordelia’s asides from this scene, as he wanted to allow anyone who didn’t know the play to be surprised at her response to Lear’s question. Knowing that in advance, I wasn’t bothered by the omission, and I could concentrate on evaluating everyone’s reactions to all three sisters’ speeches. Goneril picked up after a slow start, and although her delivery was rather forced, I felt she was not as false in her protestations of love as some we’ve seen. Lear seemed pleased with her efforts, taking a pair of scissors out of a drawer, which got the first laugh of the evening. He used them to cut off about a third of the map, giving it to Albany (Dominic Maffham) as Goneril’s reward. Goneril had come forward to stand near the desk to see what they were getting, and was close enough for Lear to briefly touch her stomach on “thine and Albany’s issue”, which led to another moment of discomfort for Goneril. Judging by Lear’s expression, there was some family tension about their lack of progeny.

Kent was already looking concerned about this whole procedure when Regan (Kirsty Bushell) took to the microphone for her turn. She was all sweetness and girlish charm at this point, and I would have instantly mistrusted her had she been part of my family. Lear was delighted with her efforts however, smiling and looking at Goneril as if to point out that she had, indeed, come “too short”. He then cut off another third of the remaining map to give to Cornwall (Patrick Robinson) and Regan. I was surprised that Cordelia’s portion would be so small, but then Lear gestured and a servant brought him a coronet which Lear placed on the table beside the final portion of the map – a bigger and better prize was on offer for her.

Looking forward to the climax of his little game, Lear danced a few steps with Cordelia as he led her to the podium, then sat behind the table – his back to Cordelia – to enjoy what he thought would be the most wonderful praise from his favourite daughter. Her “nothing, my lord” got things off to a bad start, and she didn’t do herself any favours with her long diatribe against her sisters. Lear’s temper flared up so quickly that there were more signs of shock amongst the bystanders, although they all kneeled when Lear raised his hand to utter his oath, “for by the sacred radiance of the sun…” – this was a standard gesture throughout the performance whenever the gods or similar supernatural forces were invoked. When he’d finished, Cordelia crossed the stage to stand by Kent, who took her hand in support.

Lear cut the rest of the map in two to give to Albany and Cornwall. He’d been waving the pieces around for a bit before he handed them over, and had to look at them to determine which bit went to whom. Kent’s interruption angered him more, and she also blocked him from another hand-raising curse – “now by Apollo” – which didn’t improve his temper. After Lear had pronounced her banishment, she laid her folder on the table and removed something from the lapel of her jacket, placing it with the folder. She moved round to speak to Cordelia – they may have hugged – and I was aware of a different dynamic when she, as a woman, spoke to Goneril and Regan before she left. Gloucester was just returning as Kent went out, and in response to his quizzical look she just held her hands up to indicate she wasn’t going to speak to him, and continued off.

Lear’s sudden volte-face was as puzzling to the Duke of Burgundy and King of France as it had been to the rest of Lear’s court. When Burgundy queried Lear’s change of heart, the king held the coronet, which was to have been Cordelia’s, in front of his face and responded “nothing” through it, looking directly at Cordelia to emphasise that it was down to her earlier choice that she was being treated this way. Burgundy couldn’t overcome his aversion to poverty and Cordelia was clearly happy to have avoided a marriage to such a shallow, materialistic young man, while Lear popped the Burgundy flag on the desk into a drawer once he realised that the wedding was off, causing a small laugh. The king of France was all the more determined to marry Cordelia, however. His lines were almost intact – missing only “a tardiness in nature, that often leaves the history unspoke that it intends to do?” – and I found myself warming to a man who could respond so heroically to Cordelia’s plight.

Lear went off in a huff as usual, taking Burgundy and most of the court with him. Edgar paused to clasp Cordelia’s hand as he was leaving, and of course the sisters hung around to exchange farewell pleasantries with their younger sibling. Mind you, Cordelia and France were nearly out of the building before Regan, at the microphone, called them back with “prescribe not us our duty”. Once they had left, Goneril and Regan had their little chat. Goneril seemed genuinely concerned about dealing with an erratic Lear – not much sign of her ruthless ambition at this point – while Regan was already showing signs of being a sociopath. Goneril picked up the coronet, which was still on the table, and took it with her as she exited.

Which saved the servants from having to do it themselves. The platform was moved back and the rear doors closed, while the smaller chairs were cleared, leaving just the table with one chair behind it. Edmund came on reading a piece of paper which he placed on the table. He then stood behind it and lifted his head and his hands to heaven – that standard posture again – for “Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law my services are bound.” The effect of piety was rather spoiled by the way he turned one of his hands round leaving a single (middle) finger upraised – got a laugh – and it was clear what Edmund thought of all the prayerfulness of this court. He picked up the piece of paper on “I must have your land”, and drew aside when he realised that his father was coming on stage, sitting at the front of the disc to pretend to read the letter.

Gloucester was accompanied by a servant/secretary in a suit, who helped him open out a larger piece of paper and a book, both of which he was clearly planning to study. His lines and his agitation made it clear that he was consulting his astrological references to help him understand what was going on after Lear’s strange behaviour. However, his glimpse of the letter, carefully whisked away by Edmund in a not-too-obvious manner, led to his interrogation of his younger son. When Edmund indicated that the contents of the letter might not be straightforward – “the contents…are to blame” – Gloucester signalled for the servant to leave, which he did, and then Edmund gave the paper over to his father. Gloucester took a few moments to think over the meaning of “if our father would sleep till I waked him”, but Edmund soon had him worked up into a lather over his elder son’s supposed betrayal.

Having calmed Gloucester down a bit, Edmund was setting off to look for Edgar – “I will seek him, sir, presently” – but was drawn back when his father launched into his astrological diatribe. Gloucester referred to the paper on the desk and the book during this speech, and Edmund also made use of these items after his father had left, though his comments were, as usual, derogatory.

His tone changed when he saw that Edgar was approaching. Sitting at the table, his head in his hands, he groaned loudly at the terrible predictions forecast by the stars. He almost overdid it, I thought, but Edgar was such a nice chap that he didn’t suspect a thing. Still dressed in his military finest, he was carrying a few books himself, which he passed to another servant to take off stage. Thanks to his trusting nature, he was soon caught in Edmund’s web of lies. Along with the key to his lodgings, Edmund provided Edgar with a knife so that he could “go armed”.

To some REALLY LOUD MUSIC, more servants whisked off the table and chairs, which allowed Oswald, wearing a green apron over his shirt and trousers, to have a good go at the carpet with one of CFT’s industrial-strength vacuum cleaners – like a Henry but bigger. (Mind you, after seeing what else was going to happen to that carpet, he really shouldn’t have bothered.) Goneril came on, and what with the tail end of the music and the noise of the hoover, she had to shout Oswald’s name a few times before he realised she was there and turned the vacuum cleaner off. Shethen expressed her anger about the Lear situation, giving Oswald clear instructions to pass on to the rest of the household. When she left, Oswald took the cleaner away with him, leaving the stage empty for a few moments.

Kent arrived at the front of the stage before the hunting group had fully entered – there were lots of ‘hallooing’ type noises in the background. She was dressed in plain trousers, welly boots and a baggy green jacket, and carried a backpack. She put a woolly cap over her hair, and – no surprises – gave Caius an Irish accent.

The back wall then opened up, and as Lear’s followers flooded the stage (not as literally as the storm would later) they were singing a rowdy drinking song. Chairs were placed across the disc while two long tables, set with dining apparatus including candelabras, were brought forward from the back. One of the tables sat across the back of the disc, with the other at right angles to it behind.

The drinking song became a game of musical chairs, with one of Lear’s followers missing out. He then had to stand on the chair in the middle and drop his trousers to moon the audience – nice bum – but only for a few seconds. Lear had come on during this, and enjoyed the fun – this was just the sort of thing he wanted from the good-looking and energetic young men he’d surrounded himself with.

When Kent was spotted, she had to undergo having a large amount of alcohol poured down her throat before she was allowed to talk to Lear. When he asked her name, she responded “K-Caius”, another insertion intended to help the audience, as Caius’s name is rarely used but suddenly becomes important in the final scene. Oswald came across the stage carrying a stack of plates on a tray, and brushed Kent out of the way in the process. When he returned, he was only holding the silver tray, which was just as well, as those plates would have made a horrible mess if they’d been present when Kent tripped Oswald up. He also had bits of bread thrown at him by Lear’s men, who by this time had seated themselves round the tables, before Kent picked Oswald up and chased him off stage.

The Fool (Phil Daniels) arrived during this melee, and walked forward on top of the tables. Wearing trousers, a shirt, a pullover and glasses, he looked a lot like George Formby, an impression reinforced by the small banjo he was playing and the style of song he was singing – he sang a lot of his lines, mostly with banjo accompaniment. The only ‘traditional’ note was the multi-pronged hat he wore on his head, which he held out to Kent as he advised her to avoid Lear’s service. She didn’t take it, so the Fool was able to put it on Lear’s head for the “sweet and bitter fool” demonstration. That was after Lear’s insistence that “nothing can be made out of nothing”: that reminder of Cordelia made him uncomfortable.

While the Fool was dishing out his free advice, I noticed bottles of champagne being delivered to the table. However, the Fool made use of one of the champagne glasses for another purpose. When Lear provided him with an egg, he cracked it open on a glass – “cut the egg i’ the middle” – drank the raw egg – “eat up the meat” (there were groans from the table but a smattering of applause when he’d done it) – and presented the two bits of shell to Lear, finally throwing them over his shoulders on to the table. On “sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace”, he limited his gesture to stroking the end of the banjo’s neck, but we all knew what he meant.

The men round the table stood with their right hands on their left breasts when Goneril came on, which I took to be a mocking form of reverence towards her, rather than a sign of respect for Lear. They produced very laddish responses to her complaints as well, laughing and jeering and generally behaving in the very ways she was criticizing. I was aware that Lear had been looking forward to an easy retirement when he divvied up his kingdom – this sort of conflict wasn’t what he had in mind.

Kent looked unhappy about the argument between Lear and his daughter, and both she and Albany were shocked when Lear uttered his curse against Goneril – even the Fool turned away. Goneril, who had knelt down near the front of the disc when her father raised his hand to the gods, lowered her own hand once she realised this was a curse rather than a blessing – as we were behind her, we couldn’t see her reaction in any great detail.

Lear’s men had already disappeared to pack and get the horses. After the curse, Lear didn’t fully leave the stage, just went to the back area by the tables before coming forward with his complaint about losing half of his followers. He threw one of the chairs over in his rage before stalking off after making his threat to take back the kingdom. The Fool was lurking at the back of the disc, and was soon sent packing by Goneril, strumming on his banjo as he went.

Oswald had been preparing himself all this while, and he turned up in similar clothes to the disguised Kent, although his looked a bit smarter. His riding outfit comprised trousers, boots and a chunky green jacket, and after Goneril gave him his instructions, he spent a few moments combing his hair on his way off stage, which raised a laugh. The scene finished with Albany’s bizarre line “well, well, th’ event”, which not even Dominic Maffham could make plausible, and then the staff scuttled around to clear the table and chairs, with music covering their activities.

A small table was set on the left of the disc, with a suitcase opened on top and another closed case sitting beside it. A chair had also been kept back and placed on the other side of the stage, while a tall mirror was placed in the main entrance. Lear came back on with a letter, which he gave to Kent to take to Regan. Then, with the Fool’s help, he dressed for his journey. The exchange between them was OK, but I found that the focus on the practical activities not only distracted me but made Lear seem more capable than usual in this scene, which is when the fear of madness usually begins to surface in both the lines and Lear’s behaviour.

Curan was present tonight, and gave us (and Edmund) the important news about the likelihood of civil war and the imminent arrival at Gloucester’s home of the Duke of Cornwall and Regan. By this time, the stage was bare, with the rear doors closed, and Edgar entered via a small opening in the bottom of the left panel. He was still wearing his military dress trousers with the red stripe, but had lost the jacket and his braces were all over the place. He was quickly off stage, and to provide evidence of a fight, Edmund cut his own hand.

Gloucester was accompanied by a servant and two soldiers: the soldiers went off to hunt for Edgar, while the servant held a torch so that Gloucester could bandage Edmund’s hand with his (Gloucester’s) own hanky and tie. The sound of a horn – car horn – in the distance indicated that the Cornwalls had arrived, and they were on stage very soon afterwards. Cornwall picked up the knife which Edmund had dropped after cutting himself, while Regan got both Lear and Goneril’s letters from another soldier who had come on with their suitcases and was standing in the main entrance. Regan was certainly aware of Edmund’s attractiveness, but nothing significant passed between them at this point, though Edmund did retrieve her handbag and took it off with him at the end of the scene.

As the gentry left the stage, Kent arrived on it, and waited there while Cordelia, now in military gear, walked round the front of the disc and handed a letter to a messenger before walking off. The messenger then went onto the disc to hand the letter to Kent, making it very clear to all and sundry not only that Kent had a letter but who had sent it. This gave us a chance to see the costume Cordelia would be wearing in the second half, and was a good move, given the amount of time she’s off stage and the tendency for lots of costume-changing doubling to confuse an audience. It took less time to do than to type up or read; they kept the action flowing at a good clip throughout the performance, which helped to make this a more gripping version of the story than some we’ve seen.

Oswald really should get his eyes tested. Only a few scenes earlier he was tripped up by Kent, and now here he was, unable to identify the same ‘man’. To be fair, the stage was a bit gloomy – Oswald was carrying an electric torch along with his suitcase – but even so. Kent showed her anger well, although the insults weren’t as stinging tonight as we’ve heard before, and when she drew her knife Oswald pretty much fell over and screamed for help. I’ve never seen less cause for his later assertion that he’d spared Kent’s life. If Edmund and a soldier hadn’t hauled Kent off him, he’d have been having an early bath and off to the pub before the interval. The audience appreciated the humour of this, and he raised another smile when, as he was about to explain his and Kent’s previous encounter, he took his comb out of his pocket and made himself presentable.

The stocks in this production consisted of a wire mesh cage which was brought on while a pair of wires were lowered from the ceiling. Gloucester initially signalled to his men not to fetch the cage, but Cornwall insisted, and Gloucester had to give way. The reluctant Kent was helped into the cage, which opened at the top and was big enough for her to sit in. Then the wires were attached, and the cage lifted up to where a moonbeam was waiting for it – how fortunate! Kent was able to read the letter from Cordelia, and as she did so, Cordelia herself, still in grey military fatigues, walked round the back of the stage and across to the front right exit, saying her quoted lines from the letter: “shall find time…”.

Once Cordelia was off stage, the moonbeam faded and Edgar came onto the stage below. It wasn’t long before he started stripping off, but only his shirt, unfortunately. He’d worked his way over to a specific part of the carpet, and pretended to be digging there. Reaching under a flap of the material, he came up with a lot of chalk which he smeared all over his arms, rather than actually “grime” his face “with filth”, while his attempts at sounding like a beggar worked well enough. At the end of his speech, the sound of a police siren and hints of flashing blue lights scared him off stage.

Lear and the Fool plus only one attendant – how are the mighty fallen – arrived and woke Kent up, the Fool inserting an entertaining “thou’rt still hanging around, art thou” to Kent. Lear was more incredulous than angry to see that Kent had been put in the stocks, and after taking a swig from a flask which the Fool provided, went off to have a word with the Duke and Regan. The Fool’s regular exchange with Kent was fine, though having one of them dangling in the air was a bit distracting. The cage was lowered down after “give me my servant forth”, and Kent was helped out during Regan and Cornwall’s arrival – a bit fiddly, but not too distracting. It took Lear some time to grasp that Regan wasn’t the loving daughter he thought she was; in fact, the full realisation didn’t dawn until Goneril arrived and she and Regan greeted each other quite warmly. Goneril’s arrival was also heralded by a car horn, and I noticed she was watching closely as Regan stood up to their father by suggesting that a hundred followers were far too many.

The two sisters broke Lear down with their deft teamwork, and as he spoke the final lines before his exit – “no, I’ll not weep…”- he broke down and had to be helped off by the Fool. The thunder had already begun shortly before this, and although Gloucester was keen to head off after Lear to rescue him from the elements, he was told very firmly to leave Lear to his own devices and “come out o’ the storm”. This left the stage relatively free for Kent to meet with a chap in a long black coat. This man had no name, so I’ll have to call him Gentleman as that’s all the text gives me (First Gentleman in the Oxford Complete Works). He would be heavily involved later on, as it turned out, but for now we got the information we needed about Lear, the continuing split between Cornwall and Albany and the arrival of French troops. Kent took off her cap as she talked with him, letting her hair fall naturally, and this led to the man’s comment, ”I do know you”. Kent gave him the letter for Cordelia, while the Gentleman handed her a letter and a torch before they parted.

I mentioned that the stage was relatively free for these two, since it was time for the “poor wretches” to come out and show us all how terrible life is for the homeless (which it is). This production stretched to several people huddled near the back of the stage, wearing scruffy but not tattered clothes – looking quite decent compared to some productions – with a scattering of rubbish bags and a couple of metal bins serving as braziers. The Gentleman came on at the start of the scene with a torch and looked round the stage, checking out the poor folk, but otherwise there was no interaction with them. This might have been quite effective if it wasn’t for the fact that all of this was removed for the full-on storm scene – well, the torrential rain would have put out the fires, and Lear and the Fool do need to be on their own – making it an unnecessary bit of realism with no connection to the rest of the play. Are these homeless people living near Gloucester’s house? Are they beside the heath? It’s a bit of a muddle, but we realised later why they chose this staging.

Now that it was the big set piece – “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks” – they went all out to give us real rain. Lear and the Fool were standing on the carpet, and the water came down on them like it was Noah’s flood. The carpet obviously had drainage underneath, but even so, the rain was so heavy that a puddle quickly formed under the two characters in the middle of the carpet, spreading gently outwards until it touched the sides of the disc. It was so hypnotic that I missed some of the dialogue – I gather Lear was getting a bit upset at this point and the Fool was getting wet – but at least we understood why they needed three carpets for the run – one to get wet, one drying and one for the next performance.

Actually, I liked the sheer intensity of the rain, especially as they managed to get it to swirl a bit as it came down – it really looked like a storm for once. Lear was wearing his suit, the Fool had a raincoat, and they both looked like they were getting very wet. This was one occasion when Lear really was “contending with the elements”, and I reckon the elements won a narrow victory.

The rain eased for Gloucester and Edmund’s little scene, and then Lear, Kent and the Fool were back on for the discovery of Poor Tom. But first, Lear chose to pray, and this was when the poor people made their second appearance. As he knelt in the middle of the wet disc, the homeless group snuck on at the back of the stage and huddled there for the prayer itself, then left – why? They were not “poor naked wretches”: as I mentioned before, this lot were reasonably well dressed and could certainly have weathered the storm at least as well as Lear if not better. Their appearance for only these brief moments was out of the blue, and seemed unnecessary to us. Lear did tap his own chest on “take physic, pomp”, which was good.

Poor Tom’s arrival was a bit of a shocker. He wore the obligatory loincloth, his body had a fair bit of chalk smudged over it, but the nastiest part of his makeup was the multitude of blood stains just about everywhere. More blood than chalk, from what I could see, which was a jarring contrast to the well-dressed poor we’d seen earlier. Kent gave him something – a coin presumably – which he tucked into his loincloth. The rain had stopped by now, but Lear took off his jacket and put it round Tom’s shoulders. Kent then took off her baggy jacket for Lear to wear, and was distressed to see Lear trying to give that one to Tom as well. Tom threw both of them off anyway, and Kent had to recover them as they left the stage. Lear also put his watch on Tom’s wrist and bound up Tom’s arm, where the worst cut was, with his hanky(?), an echo of Gloucester’s first aid on Edmund earlier.

For “is man no more than this?”, Tom was lying in a contorted position on the ground. Lear’s comment “thou ow’st…the cat no perfume” got a laugh and amused Lear himself, before he decided to join Tom in his nakedness. Unlike McKellen’s previous version of Lear, he got no further than removing his tie, as the Fool and Kent were quick to rush over and stop him doing any more. Tom and Lear were at the back right of the stage while Gloucester talked with the unknown Kent, so there were no reactions to Gloucester’s comments about his son, although Tom had been dextrously avoiding contact with his father from the moment the older man arrived. When the group left the stage, Tom stayed behind briefly for the Childe Rowland lines, but we were mercifully spared the Fool’s prophesy.

The Duke of Cornwall was very angry about the letter which Edmund had given him, so much so that Edmund was kneeling by the edge of the disc, concerned that he might have to suffer the Duke’s revenge instead of his father: this Duke was toying with a knife as he spoke. But suddenly Cornwall was all smiles for the little sneak, and even hugged him to show how much he would be “a dearer father” to Edmund.

The lights went down a bit as the shelter was set up. With the rain having stopped some time before, the carpet was starting to dry out a bit, and the puddle had disappeared. It took them a short while to set up the “hovel”, which turned out to be an abattoir. Two rails angled at the back held a few pig carcasses, with a pig or cow’s head visible on one of the benches underneath. There were also some spare meat hooks on the rails – no prizes for guessing what one of those would be used for. A couple of white wheeled bins were sitting to one side, and there was a table and some other furnishings around the place, including a small electric fire on the left where Kent almost immediately began setting up a simple bed for Lear. She was soon interrupted though, as Lear wanted her to be a judge in the trial. The three judges were positioned at the front of the stage, and Lear made use of the cow’s head to represent Goneril and set it up on a stool or table, giving a “moo” at one point. They cut the Fool’s comment about taking her for a joint-stool. A pig’s head appeared for Regan, and then the scene became a bit confusing with people rushing around and throwing things, before Kent got Lear to lie down on the bed.

A couple of servants plus two soldiers came on with Gloucester, and they helped Lear off. The Fool didn’t make any move to follow them: Kent’s line “thou must not stay behind” was an urgent warning, which the Fool ignored. He sank down behind the white bins on the left and decided to have a nap, so he wasn’t aware that Cornwall, Regan, Goneril and Edmund had arrived at the abattoir, just too late to catch Lear and Gloucester. Goneril and Edmund said their goodbyes, and after they left, Gloucester was brought on by more soldiers. Regan used duct tape to bind Gloucester’s hands in front of him, and once a chair had been placed towards the back of the disc, she gave the tape to the soldiers so they could “to this chair bind him”. The interrogation didn’t take long, and Regan was unpleasantly excited at the prospect of Gloucester’s blinding. She went over to the table, turned on the radio so she could have some music, and carefully selected a meat hook from the table for Cornwall to use. They hugged and kissed each other as she presented him with the meat hook, and she danced happily around the stage while he took out the first eye – no, of course I didn’t watch – and almost produced more yelps and cries than Gloucester, such was her state of arousal. Cornwall threw the ‘eye’ on the floor and squished it, causing some liquid to spurt out over the carpet – eugh!

One of the soldiers wasn’t happy with Cornwall’s actions – to be fair, I’m not sure the other soldier was too keen either – and Cornwall was having some difficulty fighting him off when Regan grabbed a knife from the second soldier and stabbed Cornwall’s attacker. The second eye was soon out and squished, and after Gloucester had been taken out by the remaining soldier, Regan realised her husband was wounded, and was very concerned. She helped him off stage, with no sign that she was already planning her next marriage.

And that would normally be that. It’s a long first half, but the interval gives a chance for the stage crew to clean up, and in this case, mop up, the stage, but we had to wait a little longer. Having slept through all this noisy activity, the Fool finally woke up, and stood up behind the bin just as Edmund crept into the otherwise deserted abattoir. Apparently he was there to check up on his father’s fate – he went over to the squished ‘eyes’ and seemed happy at the sight of them – and then he heard the Fool moving, turned and advanced towards him, knife drawn. Lights. Interval. Oo-er.

The interval involved a LOT of mopping up by the stage crew. Water was squeegeed to the sides of the carpet, large towels were constantly being wiped across the rest of the stage surface, with mats having been put down so that the audience could safely leave the auditorium. Eventually the carpet was declared ‘dry’ enough to be removed. This was an elaborate process, but it looked like they were getting very proficient at it. The carpet was rolled up round two long metal poles, one on each side, and then, with the main entrance doors blocked, it was lifted onto a long low trolley, drawn back and then slipped into the side bays with about five minutes of the interval still to go. There was still a bit of drying needed for the slightly rough chalk surface of the disc, but all in all it was a pretty good changeover.

The restart featured Edgar, looking a bit cleaner and with some tattered rags instead of just a loincloth, reflecting on the benefits of poverty. His father was led on from the front right entrance and brought around the front of the stage to the left stairs, where Gloucester stopped. Edgar was over on the right by this time, registering plenty of shock and horror at his father’s situation. I found this production stronger on the emotional level than a lot of others, and Edgar’s lines were very moving. He found it almost impossible to be with his father while pretending to be someone else, but managed to force himself to guide the blind old man. Not quite moist eyes for me, but not far off.

Back at Goneril’s place – we could tell where we were by the chandelier which was lowered down – Edmund and Goneril had just arrived. Oswald reported on Albany’s attitude to the latest news, and when Goneril told Edmund that Oswald would act as messenger between them, Edmund passed Oswald a banknote which disappeared swiftly into that gentleman’s pocket. Goneril and Edmund took their leave of each other with a very long kiss; Oswald turned his back to give them some privacy which raised a laugh. Goneril’s “o, the difference of man and man” got a laugh, with an expressive pause before the second “man”, which she said with strong passion.

Albany turned up, and their argument grew violent: Albany attempted to strangle Goneril – she fell to the ground – but he couldn’t go all the way, and with the arrival of the messenger – another soldier – they pulled themselves together (not in front of the servants, obviously). The soldier handed Albany a photo showing Gloucester’s injuries.

Kent met up with the Gentleman in the black coat next, and she wasn’t wearing her cap at all this time. He handed her another piece of paper, or possibly a photo. They headed off briefly while the rear panels opened up to show us the French camp, with Cordelia talking to an army medic about her father. The Gentleman and Kent came on, with Kent hiding behind the Gentleman until the end of the scene. Then she emerged, to be greeted warmly and hugged by Cordelia (sniffles).

Regan came into her dressing room wearing a black veil, and indicated that Oswald was to unzip her dress, which he did, rather hesitantly. As she changed out of her mourning outfit, unconcerned about Oswald’s presence, it was hard for him to avoid seeing her semi-naked body as she stripped down to her undies and tried to encourage him (seduce would be too strong a word) to let her read the letter. She got hold of it quite easily, but handed it back to him unopened!

She moved between the chair on the left and her clothes rail on the right to select her widow’s outfit, but it was a tricky call given that she also had to choose something that would work for going into battle as well. In the end she opted for dark jeggings, a neutral chemise and, as we saw later, a dark jacket, rounding it all off with high stilettos. Regan kissed her ring before she gave it Oswald to deliver to Edmund, and called him back for “if you do chance…”, taking a knife out its sheath as she said the lines. He took the knife from her on “would I could meet him, madam”, and they both departed. (I spotted something left behind on the floor, possibly a stocking, which was tidied up later.)

And so to Dover. Edgar helped his father up onto the disc, where the chalk flooring was echoed by a back wall of rough chalk, white streaked with grey. Having described the non-existent drop, Edgar backed off to the rear of the stage, calling out his farewell. Gloucester had turned to ‘see’ him off, then dropped his staff and fell backwards, to be caught by Edgar who had run round to the front of the stage and onto the disc just in time: we haven’t seen it done that way before. He carefully lowered his father to the ground, before getting concerned that his suicidal intention may have caused his actual death, and checking to see if he was still alive. He was.

After a bit more story-telling on Edgar’s part, Lear turned up. He still had his trousers and vest on, his braces were all askew and he had the regulation foliage in his hair as well as a garland of ivy tendrils. He also carried some dead-looking stems and grasses, and gave Edgar his “press-money” as he went past him the first time, which Edgar pocketed. I don’t know where Edgar got the idea for “sweet marjoram” as the password, but it satisfied Lear.

“Give the word” came after the mouse incident, and I’m pleased to report that the mouse which Lear stomped on, hard, was in fact an imaginary mouse. No animals were harmed…. The exchange between the two men was moving, with good reactions from Edgar, though he kept well back for most of this scene. Lear produced a handkerchief for Gloucester to “read thou that challenge”, and mimed self-whipping when he spoke to the beadle. He also peered through the strands of grass which he was holding at one point, though I’ve forgotten when. They mixed the humour with the sadness very well, and it’s not as easy to do as one might think.

Kent arrived with two soldiers, and although she was still in her country togs, she wasn’t wearing her cap. The French Officer spoke the lines “o, here he is…”, while Kent got the three responses “you shall have anything”, “good sir” and “you are a royal one, and we obey you”, leaving the French Officer to speak to Edgar about the battle, although it was Kent who picked up the discarded staff and gave it to Edgar.

Which was handy, because Oswald was on the stage before the soldiers and Kent had completely left it. Edgar showed how useful a staff can be against a close-range weapon such as a knife, and eventually got the knife off Oswald after a lengthy tussle. He found the letter to Edmund, as requested by the dying Oswald, and as Edgar read it out loud, Goneril walked across the back of the stage. As the scene ended, Edgar picked up the loose stocking before helping his father off the stage – nice one.

This time the scene change music was much closer to the strong drumming of the war scene, appropriate since Edgar mentions hearing the sound of a drum. After Cordelia and Kent entered and exchanged a few words, Lear was brought on in a hospital bed with drip attached. They even put a pair of slippers under the bed, ready for when he got up. The music was supplied by a CD player and was very quiet – I could hardly hear it.

Lear stayed in the bed at first, but on “where have I been”, he lifted himself round to sit on the side of the bed. He took out the drip, leading to an ‘Ow’ and then “I feel this pin-prick”. Cordelia helped Lear put on his dressing gown and assisted him to walk off.

Regan came on stage for the next scene reading a multi-page report – so much paperwork when you’re in government. She had a time to do this, as the bed was being cleared and a table brought on. She gave the report to a soldier to take away, but Edmund took it off him and glanced through it himself before handing it back, leaving his hands free for Regan. And his lips: they were soon past the chatting stage and into the serious snogging, interrupted only by the arrival of Goneril and Albany. Goneril’s “I know the riddle” sounded as if she had only just realised what was going on. Edmund’s remaining lines about both sisters wanting him were clear, but didn’t attempt to get any humour out of the situation. After he put on his helmet and said his final two lines, the sound of helicopters flying over the stage started up, and the two armies assembled for the battle.

The doors at the back were open, with only the bare tree behind. Lear and Cordelia were standing side by side, Lear in a dark military coat, the rest in French uniforms (camouflage grey, with a small tricolour on one sleeve). The swirling music with strong drumbeats was a powerful background for this section, as the English army took up their position at the front of the disc, with Albany and Edmund leading their men.

After a brief spell of looking at each other, the soldiers began to march forward, and once they were on the disc they took out their guns, aiming them at the opposition forces. They moved in unison, turning and stepping so that they pointed their weapons at a different enemy soldier, and then holding that pose for a second before moving on. During a final musical flourish, there was a bit of a skirmish, and Lear and Cordelia were down and captured. I quite liked this staging of the normally unseen warfare, especially as it showed that Lear was back to himself again and ready to take back his kingdom. It didn’t slow things down and in fact added to the energy of the performance, helping us to get through the rather more static ending scene without falling asleep.

Once the battle had been cleared off the stage, Edgar brought his father on for a few brief moments before leading him off again. There were soldiers around during this bit, but they ignored the two men: they were tasked with guarding Lear and Cordelia as they were brought on from the back, hands tied behind them and with hoods over their heads. They were lead across the stage and off, then after Gloucester and Edgar had left, they were brought on again at the front to be presented to Edmund, who pulled them by the belt, one at a time, onto the disc, before turning them round and taking off their hoods. With their hands tied, there was no hugging during their conversation, but Lear did lower his head to be beside Cordelia’s and she leaned against him.

While Lear and Cordelia were speaking, I spotted Edmund writing the instructions for the captain on a notepad and tearing off the sheet to give to him. Lear and Cordelia had been led off when Edmund called the captain back to give him the extra orders, and once this was done Regan, Goneril and Albany came on to ask about the prisoners. There were a few of Albany’s men as well, who waited at the back till needed. Regan was coughing a bit and held a bottle of water, and although someone new to the play might think the actress was just having a bit of a problem, we knew better – this was the beginning of the end.

Regan had enough strength left to declare Edmund her “lord and master”, but just as Regan and Edmund were leaving the stage, Albany ordered his arrest. One of Albany’s soldiers pointed his gun at Edmund and walked over the disc towards him. Edmund relinquished his gun and held his hands out to show he wouldn’t resist. However, he was still armed, as Albany indicated when he walked over to take a knife out of one of Edmund’s lower trouser pockets – he was wearing those combat trousers with loads of pockets – and the knife would be Edmund’s weapon for the duel. This was a good staging choice, making the duel much more plausible since Albany would be unlikely to allow Edmund to have a gun at this time.

The challenge was issued by means of a megaphone, with klaxons for the three signals. Edgar was late, as usual, so Albany was just preparing to square up to Edmund when the real challenger arrived. Wearing a hooded jacket, he had a scarf over the lower part of his face and carried the staff which Gloucester had been using earlier. When they finished talking and squared up to each other, the herald gave the start gesture, and they were soon into one of the best stage fights I’ve seen. As with Oswald, Edgar put the staff to good use. They were fairly well matched, and ended up on the ground with the staff kicked over to the front of the disc and the two men wrestling for the knife near the back. After Edgar finally got control of the knife and stabbed Edmund, he was going to finish him off by cutting his throat when Albany stopped him. Goneril was upset and angry, but Albany held on to her before releasing her into the custody of another of his soldiers. She soon ran off stage, though, and that was the last of her.

Edmund confessed his dirty tricks, the half-brothers forgave each other and clasped hands, and then Edgar explained his activities in the second half of the play. When Albany’s man cried out for help, Edgar went to the front of the stage, narrowly missing a knife which slid forward and hit the front of the disc. Edgar picked it up as the soldier came on to announce the deaths of Regan and Goneril. Albany instructed that their bodies be brought on stage and then Kent arrived with his Gentleman in tow – it was all happening pretty briskly.

Kent’s arrival reminded everyone of Lear, and while Regan and Goneril’s bodies were dragged on, lying side by side on a metallic-looking sheet, Edmund did the decent thing by warning those still living that he had given orders for the death of Lear and Cordelia. Edgar was about to give the knife in his hand to the messenger going to save their lives – the “token of reprieve” – when a shot was heard. The messenger and the Gentleman went to the back of the stage, but they didn’t have time to get very far before the first “howl”.

Lear came forward with Cordelia’s arms over his shoulders, dragging her body behind him. He laid her down on the right-hand side of the disc, very gently, and knelt beside her. He produced a gun around the time of “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors, all”, but Kent was able to get it off him, fortunately – the others had moved away from Lear just in case. When Kent approached him shortly afterwards, Lear didn’t recognise her and waved her away angrily, while the Gentleman spoke the line “’tis true, my lords, he did” after Lear’s “I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee”.

Lear moved from kneeling to sitting, dragging Cordelia round with him so that he could cradle her in his arms. Then he asked for help with his button, and Edgar came to help him with that. He also tried CPR when Lear collapsed backwards, but was told to stop by Kent – “vex not his ghost” – who also pushed his hands away from Lear’s chest. Albany then told Kent and Edgar to rule jointly. Kent refused – “I have a journey, sir…” – but didn’t leave the stage. Edgar began the last lines while still kneeling by Lear’s body, then stood up and finished the play on his feet, with a strong suggestion that, as the next king, he would prove a much more aware and compassionate ruler. We can only hope so.

This was such an energetic performance that it’s hard to register all the emotions I went through while watching it. Some of it is just sinking in a few days later, as I go over the experience in my mind. Knowing the story so well, there was little that surprised me, but the clarity of the story-telling still threw up some new ideas and awarenesses, and I particularly liked the strong contrast between Goneril and Regan in the early stages, with Goneril seeming much more reasonable in her concerns about Lear’s behaviour than her sister. With such a helter-skelter pace, a few of the subtler aspects may have been lost, but then the production didn’t turn to mush in the final stages, as some of them can, when Lear becomes rooted to the spot and no one else can move much either – that can drain the energy away entirely. We reckon this is one of our top three productions, and hope to be able to see it again, if tickets become available.

© 2017 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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