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.

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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.

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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.

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King Lear – November 2013 (1)

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th November 2013

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

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

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King Lear – August 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Company: Theatre Royal Bath Productions

Venue: Theatre Royal Bath

Date: Thursday 8th August 2013

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

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King Lear – October 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Attenborough

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 6th October 2012

This was a very clear, good staging with some nicely detailed performances. I didn’t find it as engaging as the recent Donmar and Tobacco Factory versions, probably because the Almeida is still effectively a proscenium arch space; this was a very good production nonetheless. There were few significant staging choices, but the emphasis on the narrative and strong energy kept us engaged throughout.

The set was a semicircle of castle walls in rough stonework. There were two levels, with five openings spaced round the walls. On the upper level there were three balconies in the middle flanked by two windows, while below there was a large central doorway  with folding metal doors, an ordinary door on either side and doorways on each end of the curve. The flagstones on the stage were crossed with grilles, which could have been used for water if they’d had any; instead they were simply used for lighting effects. There was a bench on each side, and a throne on a dais was brought on as needed through the central doorway. For the second half, with most of the scenes being set around Dover, the benches were cleared away and strips of rough planting placed strategically around the stage, both above and below. There were several electric lights round the walls, and a ridge of stone between the two floors such as in ruined buildings, indicating that a floor used to be there. There was little other evidence of decay so I assume that was just a design feature. This mixture of modern and pseudo-mediaeval was also present in the costumes, some of which looked a bit chunky for comfort, but the overall effect was fine.

The text was a blend of the Folio and Quarto, so it was largely familiar but with the occasional difference which kept it fresh to my ears. They began in near darkness, with a figure coming through one of the doors and lurking near the front of the stage. This was Gloucester, and he was joined soon after the lights came up by Kent for the opening lines. As they spoke these, another man appeared in a different doorway and was spotted by Kent, who referenced him with the line “Is not this your son, my lord?” Gloucester was as embarrassing as usual, play-boxing with Edmund, giving far too much detail about his conception and announcing that “away he shall again”. Edmund bore these humiliations stoically, and was pleased to make Kent’s acquaintance, but his unhappiness with his lot was clear.

The court only just arrived before the king did; Cordelia had to skip quickly across the stage to kneel before her father as he came through the doors at the back. They all had to move when Lear ordered the map to be spread out, as it was more like a carpet than a map. Regan and Goneril stood to the left with their husbands, while Cordelia stood to the right. Lear was much more affectionate to Cordelia in this scene, and it was no surprise that her sisters didn’t like her much.

The announcement of his semi-retirement didn’t come as a shock to the court – presumably this had been discussed beforehand – but when he asked the question “which of you shall we say doth love us most” he definitely caught them by surprise. Goneril looked quite pleased, as if she felt she had a better chance now that flattery was an option. Albany bent forward to have a word in her ear while Lear completed his speech; meanwhile Regan stepped forward, ready and willing to have a go (typical second child). Lear beamed at her eagerness, but decided to go in age order. Goneril was smoothly into her stride, and it was abundantly clear to anyone with common sense that her words were excessive and undoubtedly false. Lear didn’t see it that way though – he loved every minute of it, kissed her at the end and not only showed which area she would get, he stood her on it as well, on the right hand side of the map. He also put a coronet on her head. Cordelia delivered her asides during her sisters’ speeches from the right side of the stage.

Regan was just as quick with her praise, and I didn’t notice any reaction from Goneril when Regan made her comment about coming “too short”. Again, this was laid on with a trowel, and Lear came across as a bit mad already with his ready acceptance of such obvious flattery. Regan got a cuddle from Lear, and I was starting to think he was a bit too affectionate with his daughters – what had gone on in the past? Regan stood on the left hand side of the map, also with the coronet which Lear had given her. Then Lear took Cordelia and not only placed her on the middle of the map but put the coronet on her head before she’d said a word, he was so sure that she wouldn’t disappoint him.

Cordelia’s first “nothing” was treated as a joke, with Lear and the sisters smiling. Her continued refusal to play the game astounded Lear at first, and then he became angry. He also started feeling his chest, as if he was getting pains or tightness there, and through the next section he loosened his jacket or waistcoat, revealing his shirt underneath. When he told Albany and Cornwall to split Cordelia’s lands between them, he snatched the coronet off her head and threw it at the two lords. He was behaving really badly, but worse was to come.

Kent’s intervention was very strong; he stood up to Lear but to no avail, and he left just as Gloucester was coming back in to announce the entrance of France and Burgundy. Gloucester noticed that something was up, but obviously didn’t know the details at that time. Cordelia stood front and centre for this part, facing the throne to begin with then turning to face us or her father as the scene continued. Cordelia was quite scathing about Burgundy’s concern for money and status, and didn’t seem to react much to the King of France’s speeches, but then she’d had a tough day already, poor lamb. Lear flounced off with the rest of the court apart from Goneril and Regan, and Cordelia was almost out of the door after “with washed eyes Cordelia leaves you”, but couldn’t resist coming back to have another go at the two of them. The sisters’ conference after she left showed that they were willing to cooperate with each other in dealing with their father, with Goneril taking the lead.

Edmund’s opening speech was fine. He had the letter ready prepared on a scrappy piece of parchment and was sitting on one of the benches reading it when his father arrived and asked to read it. I was very aware, when Gloucester made his comments about “nothing” that he wasn’t present when Cordelia upset Lear with her “nothing”. So two “nothings” set us up for a serious tragedy with lots of deaths – a powerful word indeed. Edmund played his part well enough, seemingly concerned to support his brother while stitching him up even more. Gloucester was as easily fooled as Lear, and Edmund’s sneering analysis of Gloucester’s superstitions was well received by the audience. In fact there was more laughter during this Lear than any other production I’ve seen.

Edgar was just as easy to fool as his father, but first Edmund had to get his attention away from the delectable young woman Edgar was grappling with when he came on stage. Still mostly clothed, they looked like that wouldn’t last for long until Edmund pulled the young woman to one side, gave her a small coin for her trouble and sent her packing. Who knew Edgar was such a man-about-town? Quite how he got his lines out with all the snogging I don’t know, but he managed it.

Goneril’s complaints about her father’s behaviour seemed reasonable given his outburst in the opening scene, and she was clearly angry at having to deal with these problems. Kent had shaved his beard off, so his disguise was believable for once, with his rough clothes and changed accent. Lear was in good humour to begin with, and I noticed he was constantly calling for his fool. The exchange with Oswald was straightforward, and then the fool arrived. A tall chap, he wore grey clothes and a square cloth hat and spoke with a Geordie accent. He and Lear seemed to have a good relationship, despite Cordelia’s banishment, but although Lear commented on his singing, the fool seemed to sing less than usual this time.

With Goneril’s arrival Lear started to lose his temper, and his curse on her fertility really upset her. She was crying afterwards, though she tried to show a brave face while Lear was still there, and she recovered herself when her husband started to interfere – telling him off gave her something else to think about. Oswald was sent off with a letter, and then Lear re-entered, sending the disguised Kent off with a similar letter. Lear was very upset, and again I could see how this disturbance made him better at answering the fool’s question about the stars. He even mimicked the fool a bit, too. His line “Keep me in temper. I would not be mad” was addressed directly to the fool, an instruction to use his skills to keep Lear sane. The fool’s final lines were “cut shorter” in this production – not a bad choice.

Edgar’s flight had a slightly unusual staging. Edmund came on and called up to the right hand balcony for his brother, who came forward but then pulled back when Curran arrived. Edmund had a quick chat with Curran about the Duke of Cornwall’s arrival, then Curran left and Edgar arrived on stage. Their talk and fight were pretty standard and after Edgar left, Edmund wounded himself on the arm; they didn’t use fake blood for this injury. Regan and Cornwall’s arrival was straightforward, and nothing was made of Edmund’s injury (Regan sometimes binds it up herself).

Kent and Oswald had a right set-to, with Oswald’s long dagger no match for Kent’s machete-like sword. There were some laughs during Cornwall’s interrogation of the two messengers, but even so it all ended unhappily. The stocks which Kent was put in had a wooden back and floor with the leg stocks at the end, and it was placed in the centre of the stage. Kent’s arms were also tied to the sides of this structure, but he was able to take out the letter to read by moonlight.

With the stage temporarily darkened and sound effects indicating pursuit, Edgar came on at the side of the stage to explain his plan for escape. Near the end, two soldiers came on and Edgar fell to the ground and did his “Poor Tom” impression; he’d already removed his shirt, and when one of the soldiers checked him over it was a good enough disguise to fool him. Edgar’s comment “that’s something yet” referred to the success of his impersonation,

Lear and the fool arrived once Edgar left, and the unhappy encounter played out as usual. Lear worked hard to restrain his temper when he found that Cornwall and Regan were unavailable, but the efforts of his two daughters to exert their authority over him proved too much in the end, and he left with the fool, still desperately trying to keep his sanity.

Kent met with another man and sent his message to Cordelia, and then Lear and the fool entered to do the storm scene without a drop of water to be seen. Just acting. Almost revolutionary in modern terms. Kent returned, and the hovel was entered by a trapdoor. Edgar emerged wearing a fairly substantial loincloth, and hid himself beside Lear when Gloucester turned up. Lear was clearly fixated on his daughter’s ingratitude, and his madness was entirely believable and quite touching, though not as moving as I’ve known it before. At the end of the scene, the fool simply left, clearly deciding that Lear was no longer worth following. I forget exactly when Gloucester had his short scene with Edmund, but this took place up on the central balcony, as did the subsequent scene between Cornwall and Edmund.

They took the interval after this scene, and restarted with the dreaded blinding scene. Apart from noticing Regan’s enjoyment of the whole sordid business, and spotting that Cornwall had been given some eye-like stuff to hold after each bit of nastiness, I avoided as much of the unpleasantness as I could. Regan was concerned for her husband this time, after his stabbing by one of the servants, and the other two servants, a man and a woman, were left to comment on Cornwall’s actions and look after Gloucester.

Edgar’s happy philosophising was cut short by his father’s arrival with bloody bandaged eyes, and I found his reactions to events the most moving in this performance. I could see how difficult the situation was for him, pretending to be the bedlam beggar Poor Tom and helping his blinded father to Dover to commit suicide. Tough for anyone, but especially after everything he’d already gone through. Edgar’s later description of the high cliff was very good, and I was more aware this time that they were just standing in a field or similar at the time.

Meanwhile, back at Albany’s HQ, Goneril arrived with Edmund and was informed of her husband’s strange attitude. She gave Edmund a long kiss before he left, and although Oswald looked a little uncomfortable as he stood there, I didn’t get the impression that he’d been as close to his mistress as in some productions. The news of Gloucester’s blinding interrupted the marital row, and Goneril was naturally worried about the proximity of Edmund to her newly-widowed sister.

Cordelia made a brief appearance as Queen of France, sending out people to find her father, and then Regan had her unsatisfactory conversation with Oswald. The scene at the top of the ‘cliff’ was good, and then Lear turned up, stark mad. There was some humour in this part, and the dialogue was nice and clear. Oswald was soon killed and his letter taken and read by Edgar, who then took Gloucester off to safety.

Lear’s awakening was nicely done, and then there were the usual preparations for the battle, followed by the final post-battle scene with all its revelations. Edgar and Edmund had a proper fight, and when Lear returned with Cordelia, another man was carrying her body. Lear did a lot of chest clutching again before he died, and for once the bodies of Edmund, Goneril and Regan weren’t cluttering up the stage. Kent got up and left after saying his final lines, and Edgar said the play’s closing lines with sadness and a sense that he accepted his new position.

The staging was so straightforward that I’m surprised to find so little to note up. The dialogue was mostly clear and intelligible, which helped a lot, and the details of the story came out very well. The pace was brisk, and although I wasn’t as moved this time, I did enjoy the production very much.

Jonathan Pryce gave an excellent central performance as Lear, with lots of detail and a willingness to let the character be unlikeable at the start. This was one of the reasons I felt less emotionally involved, as Lear was so obviously unbalanced from the beginning that the other relationships didn’t quite gel for me. Why would Kent be so loyal? Cordelia may well have been the pampered one, but she’s not stupid and she sees what’s going on, so why would she be so unaware of her father’s instability? The pace of the performance kept me from dwelling on these points, but there was a general sense that this was a production which hadn’t plumbed the depths of meaning in all areas, even though it hung together pretty well.

Goneril was played by Zoe Waites who is always superb, and this was another great performance. Jenny Jules played Regan, and I found her dialogue not as clear as the others which was a surprise. Her performance was fine, though not as detailed as some, but that may have been down to the production choices. Phoebe Fox was a winsome Cordelia, and Ian Gelder a dependable Kent with flashes of temper in his insults to Oswald. Clive Wood’s Gloucester was another good portrayal, and I liked Richard Goulding’s Edgar. The rest of the cast were fine and the audience were very appreciative at the end, and rightly so.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – May 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Hill

Venue: Citizens Theatre

Date: Wednesday 9th May 2012

I’d seen some great productions at the Citizens back in the 1970s, so I was really keen to visit it again; something of a nostalgia fest for me. I reckon that’s why Steve and I rated this performance differently, which doesn’t often happen. He gave it 7/10, while I was much happier with a 9/10 rating.

We couldn’t see all of the stage from the start, but I’ll describe it all now – saves time later on. At the beginning, there were steps leading up to the stage centre front, and there was a transparent curtain of plastic strips right across the stage near the front. The lights from the auditorium created a pattern of glowing waves on this curtain. I could just about see that behind it was a table with chairs, and that was all.

Once the action started, the central section of the stage became clearer. With a girder delineating each corner, the centre of the stage held various items of furniture, from the opening dinner table complete with fancy chandelier, through various other chair and table combos, then wheelchairs, a bed, a shopping trolley, piles of rubbish, etc., as well as occasionally being vacant. Behind this central section was a wall of high glass panels. Lurking figures could be seen through this, the homeless folk who inhabited the world outside the confines of the play. Pianos were everywhere, and provided the music and sound effects throughout, sometimes played in the usual fashion, and sometimes the strings were exposed and played directly, giving lots of crashing discords. The overall colour scheme was murky grey, but despite the apparent drabness the performance was full of life (till the end and all those dead bodies, of course). The costumes were modern, with occasional hints of historical peasant garb.

They started this production with a homeless person slamming the trapdoor open at the front of the stage. Then several of the dispossessed clambered out and gathered in front of the curtain, gazing through it at the dinner party on the other side. This was frozen to begin with, but then one of the homeless chaps removed his anorak and moved through the curtain to join the party, just as there was a burst of laughter from the table; he carried the piece of paper that was the map. The other homeless folk snuck off, though they were visible during the play at the sides and back. The characters at the table included Goneril, Albany, Regan and Cornwall, while Kent and Gloucester were sitting on the near side of the table. Ditching the usual opening about which of the Dukes Lear prefers (tactless in this situation), they went straight into Gloucester introducing Edmund to Kent. The others joined in the ribald laughter at Gloucester’s story, apart from Kent and also Albany, who looked askance at this social indiscretion. Edmund was civil and obliging as usual, but was clearly put out by his father’s announcement that he would be sent away again!

Lear arrived with Cordelia, who took her seat on the near side of the table as well, possibly in Gloucester’s vacated chair. As Lear presented the challenge to his daughters to profess the depth of their love for him, he seemed to be making it up off the cuff, and amidst the surprise Regan reacted by laughing out loud. When Goneril started her speech, she clearly thought that stating the matter was beyond words would be sufficient, and when she realised she was wrong she moved pretty quickly into flattery mode, trotting out the flowery lines like an old pro. Already middle-aged, she’d had plenty of time to practice the ‘oily art’ over the years. Cornwall stood up to watch closely what portion Goneril was being given – obviously keen to get as big a prize as he could from this little game show.

Regan had had time to prepare, of course, so she heaped the praises on with a fork lift truck. Goneril didn’t look too upset at being upstaged, but Cordelia was deeply troubled. I didn’t spot Kent’s reactions at this point, but I suspect he wasn’t keen on Lear’s little game. Regan was given her portion – Cornwall on his feet again, and apparently happy with his wife’s winnings – and then Cordelia had to go and spoil it all. She spoke from her heart, and I noticed Kent was nodding a little, making it clear he agreed with her completely, and setting the scene for his coming outburst. Lear tore the map in two and handed one part each to Albany and Cornwall at the appropriate moment, and I think he was standing on the table when he sent Kent packing. When Gloucester came on to introduce the French king and Burgundy, his confident announcement trailed off with surprise when he realised something strange had happened since he left the room earlier.

For this section, Lear sat behind the table, his beady eyes fixed on the action. When Burgundy refused Cordelia, Lear seemed grimly satisfied that his judgement was being effective against her. He wasn’t so pleased with the King of France for speaking up on Cordelia’s behalf, and his eyes were narrow slits when France declared Cordelia his queen. Lear left with Burgundy, and France had almost left the stage with Cordelia before he paused and told her to say farewell to her sisters, who were still sitting at the table. With their departure, Goneril and Regan had their little chat, and I noticed that Goneril not only appeared more confident than Regan, she was also quick to adopt the royal ‘we’ in her speech, while Regan had yet to realise her new position.

The servants cleared the table and chairs away during that last bit of the scene, and so they soon had the furniture set up for Gloucester’s house – a sofa and not much else. There was an overlap with the previous scene during the clearing; as Goneril strolled off stage she cast an approving eye on Edmund, who came on wearing a grey tracksuit and laid on the ground near the front the stage. After Goneril left and the changes were complete, Edgar came on and sat on the sofa to read the paper and drink his can of beer. I liked this staging; again it got across the domestic nature of the relationships, and increased the risk factor of Gloucester and Edgar finding out Edmund’s trick before it had a chance to work. It also had the benefit of telling us who Edgar is, which is handy when he’s hardly on stage at all before he appears, disguised, as Poor Tom. Edmund’s diatribe against the social exclusion of bastards was more obviously a soliloquy with Edgar being present, and he handled it pretty well. He also spotted the useful quality of the word ‘legitimate’ and added it to the letter he’d prepared earlier.

After Edgar had gone off, presumably to get some more beer, Gloucester arrived carrying a bottle of whisky and a glass, and taking liberal helpings. He sat on the sofa to read the letter he took from Edmund, while Edmund played the concerned brother very well. After Gloucester’s departure, he worked the same trick on Edgar as they sat on the sofa together, and all was set for this strand of knavery.

Back with the dining table and chairs, Goneril gave her instructions to Oswald and then Kent turned up, hair no longer slicked down and without his glasses. From a fairly posh English accent, he chose to move to a broader Glasgow one, and he was ready to offer his service when Lear arrived, carried on the shoulders of one of his followers.

The attendant lords were a lewd bunch, each one equipped with his own doxy; Kent/Caius was a model of good behaviour by comparison. With plenty of support from acting and music students, the production could at least put lots of bodies on the stage, and these scenes benefitted from the numbers. The confrontation with Oswald was fine, and then the fool arrived. With a whitened face and a cap, this fool was dressed like a mime, and walked with one foot twisted inwards, creating a sense of disability. He also used the piano at the side of stage a lot to accompany his singing in this scene, although it wasn’t the most tuneful version I’ve ever heard. The lines came across well enough though, which is the main thing. I don’t remember any reaction from Lear on the ‘Nothing can be made out of nothing’ line, and Lear himself stood in for the bitter fool this time.

The confrontation with Goneril went badly, as usual, with her reproaches seeming reasonable in the circumstances, and Lear starting to move into madness through his obsessive belief that his daughters owed everything to him. He threw some chairs around before storming off, and the stress he was under came out more in the following scene while he waited with the fool for the horses to be ready.

Curran was included in this production at the start of Edmund’s next scene, and soon Edgar was on the run. Gloucester almost collapsed at the ‘realisation’ that his own son wanted him dead (silly man), and then Cornwall and Regan arrived to ask Gloucester for his advice. Kent’s altercation with Oswald was very good fun; perhaps it was the Scottish accent, but the insults were so well delivered that I heard every one, and the audience finally had a chance to laugh out loud. As I recall, Kent was using a golf club which Gloucester had left leaning against the bench, threatening Oswald with the handle end.

After the ‘combatants’ had been parted, Kent really put his foot in it with the insults to the assembled nobles. I was very aware that Kent was echoing Lear’s behaviour, acting as if he were still entitled to the benefits of his rank even though he’d been exiled and was in disguise. His look of panic as he realised he would be put in the stocks seemed to be partly for himself and partly for the insult to the king; like Lear he had still to learn the new political reality. Gloucester was also disturbed by this proceeding, and his reactions were clear throughout these scenes, not just during his lines. Kent was chained to the bench, and read his letter by moonlight. This done, the lights were lowered on the centre of the stage so that Edgar’s scene could take place near the front, using the same trapdoor that opened the play.

We both found this Edgar a bit strange. His accent was unclear, a strange mix from nowhere in particular – was this deliberate? His delivery was also a bit wimpish, and although I heard most of the lines OK, I wasn’t convinced by the performance that this Edgar would make a good king. Mind you, the way they ended the play suggested a different take, but I’ll deal with that when I get there. At least he established the disguise he was taking on – it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows the story – and there were some background sounds to suggest that people were out searching for him.

Back with Kent, the fool and Lear arrived, and again there was some humour in their exchange, with Lear refusing to believe that Regan would have put his man in the stocks and Kent assuring him she did – almost like pantomime. As the scene developed, I noticed that after Cornwall’s admission that he had Kent put in the stocks, Regan deliberately took over the conversation again, suggesting that like her sister she had come to realise the strength of her position, and that dealing with the king was her business, not her husband’s. After Goneril arrived and the greetings were done, the sisters stood at the front of the stage, one on either side, and tacitly negotiated the final transfer of power from Lear to them. Goneril had a slightly quizzical look when Regan started the process of bidding Lear down – what’s she up to here? – then the declaration of ‘but five and twenty’ made it clear, and a silent pact was made. Like two lionesses bringing down a rampant wildebeest, they held each other’s gaze and were steadfast in their demands while Lear raged impotently at his treatment.

With the storm starting, and Lear heading off into the wilds of Gloucestershire, the glass curtain at the back was raised, and several shadowy figures became visible lurking round the stage. This emphasised for me the world that Lear was entering; not so much the madness aspect but the dispossessed, the naked, those without shelter. And of course there’s a lot of mental illness amongst those sleeping rough, an appropriate connection to make between the play and the present day. Lear’s long rant was clear enough, bringing out the emphasis on ingratitude and his increased awareness of the suffering of the poor. The fool’s prophecy was cut, and we were soon through the discovery of Poor Tom, who stayed well clear of Gloucester when he turned up. The short scenes between Edmund and Gloucester and Edmund and Cornwall were fine, and for the arraignment scene there was a shopping trolley and a mattress, as well as a stool or two, although Goneril wasn’t a joint-stool this time (forget what was used instead). Before he went to bed, Lear actually smashed the fool’s head against one of the stools, giving him a bloody wound, and by the end of the scene the fool had clearly died. When Gloucester arrived to warn them to leave, they put Lear into the shopping trolley and wheeled him off, leaving the fool’s body there. Interval.

The second half started with the blinding scene, of course, and Regan was again much too keen on the unpleasant stuff. She even used one of her stilettos to remove the second eye – eugh! She did at least help Cornwall off after he was injured – some Regan’s don’t – and then we got a chance to see someone being helped on to the stage, as Gloucester was brought on by a servant and met his disguised son. Edgar’s emotional reactions were clear, and they were soon off to Dover.

The scenes come thick and fast now. Goneril had a good snog with Edmund before he left – no reaction from Oswald this time. Albany was a much stronger presence in this scene than usual, and very unhappy with Goneril’s actions. She was equally unhappy with him – I think she threw her handbag at him, or did he grab it off her? – so I don’t see much future in that relationship.

I think the next scene was Regan and Oswald – not the Kent scene, and possibly not Cordelia’s either – and although Regan had delved into her extensive wardrobe for a black ensemble, she was clearly preparing for another wedding, to Edmund this time. Oswald’s reluctance to show her Goneril’s letter to Edmund was not easily overcome, despite Regan’s rather crude attempt to offer sexual favours.

Back at Dover, Edmund helped his father up the steep slope to the top of the cliff, etc. I realised later that this is possibly the only scene in Shakespeare’s plays where the description of the location is actually wrong, and yet it’s so good that I find it hard to remember where we are, and it’s often a surprise when Lear comes wandering along the ‘beach’. Here the conversation between Lear and Gloucester was good, though not the best I’ve heard, and the attendants when they arrived were all women and all in white coats. Lear ran off, Edgar fought Oswald and took his letter, and then Lear was brought on in a wheelchair for the reunion with Cordelia. For some reason there was a young woman, one of the homeless, also in a wheelchair at the back and apparently being cared for by the women in white coats; don’t have a clue what it meant, but at least it didn’t get in the  way. The Cordelia/Lear reunion was quite touching, and then we were back with Regan and Edmund for the battle preparations. Edmund’s explanation of his dilemma over the sisters was another opportunity for humour, not really responded to this time which was a shame, as that was the last comfort break before unremitting doom and gloom set in.

The battle lost, Lear and Cordelia were taken away to prison. Regan showed symptoms of poisoning soon after her arrival on stage, Edgar was nearly beaten by Edmund in the duel but managed to keep going and eventually won the fight, and the messenger sent to the prison had hardly run off the first time before Lear arrived on stage with Cordelia’s body, crying ‘howl, howl, howl’. With Lear dead, Kent not only took out a gun while saying his final lines, he also sat in the chair, put the gun in his mouth and fired immediately after he’d finished speaking, as abrupt an end to this character as I’ve ever seen, though other productions have pointed in this direction. After Edgar’s closing lines, he and a group of the homeless folk joined up in a band and walked to the front of the stage, suggesting that the have nots are now taking over the country, and that Edgar’s time as Poor Tom has taught him the lessons that Lear never learned until it was too late. It was a different, and almost a downbeat ending (Lear? Downbeat? Surely not!) without the sense of goodness surviving through the difficulties and some sort of order being restored. This ending suggested a tearing down of the old ways and an almost hostile takeover of society by those who have no investment in the previous regime. It’s an interesting parallel with current events, and one I have some sympathy with, although I’m not sure the play fully supports this reading. Still, I enjoyed this evening enormously, and despite some flaws, the story was told very well with some strong individual performances. I’ll be keen to come back here again for future productions.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me