King Lear – March 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 24th March 2011

Having reviewed my earlier notes, I’m glad to say I did enjoy this performance more than the earlier ones. Again, we didn’t notice any significant changes to the staging, although as Kathryn Hunter had left the company, we got to see Sophie Russell playing the Fool as part of the regular cast. She’d certainly come on for the practice, and I reckon I enjoyed this Fool the best, with the dialogue coming across very clearly throughout.

The improvement was again down to the actors having greater understanding of their parts, coupled with more experience of working with each other in lots of different spaces, and I suspect there may even be a boost from the new theatre itself, an adrenalin rush to be opening the new house that we’ve waited for for so long. I certainly felt the set fitted very well into the new space, and although the new stage is smaller than the Courtyard, the action didn’t seem cramped at all. Unlike the poor people sitting in the front row round this side, who complained of a lack of leg room.

I’m not sure if Cordelia and Edmund’s delivery had improved since we saw this back in August; my notes remind me that their vocal skills were better then. It’s possible they’ve come on even more since that performance, though my aural memory isn’t good enough to tell.

James Gale wasn’t in it tonight, but I’ll have to check the programs to see what’s happened there. [We found out he’d also left the company, although this was due to ill-health, sadly.]

Anyway, a marvellous performance, which I felt took me to a very dark place, and brought me back again, just. I had some tears at the usual places, and I found I didn’t mind that some people were laughing at Lear’s mad behaviour when he meets Gloucester, while I was simply moved to compassion by his suffering. I also felt that cutting Edgar’s lines here was right, as the two ‘old men’ were providing all the emotional input that was needed; Edgar’s comments would have been a distraction. Greg Hicks was magnificent as Lear, really getting into the emotions of the part, and I’m very glad we saw this one last time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – Janaury 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th Janaury 2011

I wasn’t too hopeful that I’d enjoy this production, as the previous Shakespearean tragedies we’d seen directed by Michael Grandage had always seemed to lack depth, especially in the emotional department. Today was a revelation. A sparse set, rich but sombre costumes, and some tremendous acting from the whole cast made this the perfect Lear. I laughed, I cried – Steve overheard Ron Cook comment ‘terrific audience’ on his way out, so I suspect we weren’t the only ones having a great time.

I felt that Goneril’s voice was a little weak early on, but I reckon that was to make her seem like the good little daughter – she found her lungs and her power soon enough when the crown was on her head. Derek Jacobi went bright red with anger on a number of occasions, and I was quite worried for him, but he lasted the performance (thank goodness), and his acting was both very powerful and very detailed, bringing out subtle nuances and making all the lines clearly intelligible, both in terms of what he said (didn’t really need the hearing aids with him), and what it meant. The fool was trying to cheer him up after they’d met Poor Tom, but it was clear that Lear was too far gone to relate to him anymore. The fool was brushed aside as Lear was helped off the stage to Gloucester’s offered shelter, and at that point makes the difficult decision to leave the king. I was also aware during the Lear/Gloucester duet that Lear has taken on some of the attributes of the fool, pointing out many of the vanities and injustices of the world.

The text was very well edited; it told the story fully but without the extra flourishes, and the clarity of the dialogue wasn’t limited to the king. The pace was brisk, but not to the detriment of understanding, and also even, with every cast member following the same beat. Another nice touch was playing the storm scene in relative quiet. The gaps in the wooden planks allowed lights to shine through, just suggesting lightning. No actual water was used although there was a drain along the back wall, and the thunderstorm effects were kept to a minimum. Lear was therefore able to whisper his first lines of these speeches, and increase the volume gradually, which made it much more powerful in my view. The fool also looked as though he was moving in slow motion, suggesting that these thoughts were flashing through Lear’s brain faster than the lightning itself.

The cast was trimmed to the minimum, but no problems there. Some rhubarb from behind us gave the impression of a large crowd of hangers-on, and for the most part they relied on the text and their acting abilities, both of which were well up to the task. If only more productions would do the same. We were also spared the procession of bodies at the end, with Edmund dying offstage, along with both sisters. I noticed some pinker patches on the white floor planks, so perhaps they did make an appearance early on? The eye removal wasn’t the worst I’ve seen, but there was enough blood to leave me feeling suitably squeamish.

In the early scenes, Edgar came on stage before Regan and Goneril departed, and they were already noticing the handsome young man who’s new at court. Edgar’s reactions to his father’s introduction of him to Gloucester were spot on, including not being too happy to find out he’s being sent away, again.

The sisters were less wolfish than usual; in fact I found them quite reasonable to begin with. OK, Lear’s being incredibly foolish playing his little game with them all, but they both handled it smoothly, and even convincingly. The rot set in once they had the power and no longer had to pretend to love their father. That, coupled with lust for Edmund and jealousy of each other, seemed to be the main driving forces for those two. But then, this production wasn’t so much trying to do an in-depth psychological examination of dysfunctional family relationships, as tell a cracking good story which contained both humour and suffering.

The scene between Kent and the messenger chap seemed to have more lines than I remember – must check text.

I was very aware when Edgar was leading Gloucester up the pretend slope to the cliff top, that here was a young man helping his blinded father whom he loved (yes, the hanky was out good and early). I could relate to how difficult it must have been to be with his father and still pretend.

The fight scene was good. I was a little worried they might get too close to the audience, but all was well, in that only Edmund received a fatal wound. Goneril grabbed a dagger before running off.

Lear’s final scene and death were very touching. He carried Cordelia on, and she was soon lowered to the floor, very gently, by Kent and Albany, if memory serves. Lear eventually sank back into Kent’s arms, and with some racking breaths, let out a final, deep sigh to signify his passing. Kent stayed there, cradling his body. I wondered if he had been wounded in the fighting, by the way he walked on for the final scene, but there was no other indication of that.

Edgar rose from a crouching position to speak the final lines, suggesting his acceptance of the kingship. And so it was over, and we gave our all in the applause.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – August 2010


By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 20th August 2010

What a difference from the first performance we saw in February. The set wasn’t so intrusive, perhaps because we were used to it, although there may have been some changes. But the main change was in the performances, which were much more detailed and authoritative throughout. The opening scene, particularly, worked brilliantly this time for me, with Lear clearly trying to wheedle a ‘loving’ response from Cordelia so as not to ruin his planned praise-fest. Greg Hicks had told us at the Summer School this morning that he had now learned to speak more directly to the audience, for regular dialogue as well as soliloquies, and the change was amazing. I also agreed with Greg Hicks that Lear already has the seeds of madness in him at the start of the play; here we get to see those seeds sprouting very quickly.

For the very start, Edgar was on stage, hunkered down at the back. He stood up and walked to the centre of the stage, looking at the flickering light. Cordelia and the other characters for the first scene also came on, looking the same way. Suddenly, Edgar broke off, and ran off stage at the back. The rest of the cast formed up, and the play began. I reckon this was the way it started back in February, I just forgot that detail when I was writing my notes (and I probably didn’t realise it was Edgar we were seeing, either).

Several of the lines came across more clearly, and with much greater meaning tonight. Both Cordelia and Edmund have improved their delivery enormously – their accents made their dialogue seem very flat before, but they’ve got more flexibility into their voices.

Greg mentioned the possibility of incest this morning, and while it wasn’t emphasised, there was much too much physical contact between him and Regan when he’s talking with her at Gloucester’s place. I was also aware of how unreasonable his behaviour was, and what sort of strain that could put his daughters under, which would explain a lot about their attitudes to him.

No changes to the staging that we noticed, so the improvement is entirely down to the acting. I’m looking forward to seeing this again, probably when they open the new theatre, and hopefully I’ll be in better health so I can enjoy the performance even more.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – May 2010

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Vik Sivalingam

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 4th May 2010

The first time we saw this was back in February, when it had only just opened. Today’s understudies run had a few differences, but it was basically the same, and no more interesting than before as a production, though the understudies gave good to excellent performances. Several of them were preferred to the original cast, though to be fair we would need to see this again to see how it’s come on.

Our seats were on the opposite side, giving us an interesting change of perspective. We lost some things – couldn’t see the nuns in the upper level, for instance – but gained on others, although I still didn’t pay close attention to the blinding scene. The flickering lights were still unnecessary, but from the side the industrial shambles set wasn’t so intrusive, which helped.

Darrell d’Silva took a break, presumably to help his hand injury heal, so there were fewer ‘other part’ players available. The march across the diagonals by each side in the battle was reduced to one side only – Lear, Cordelia and one other – and the rabble of knights seemed depleted from the off, but that may have been our angle. Lear was joined on the platform during the thunderstorm by the fool, an interesting doubling with Cordelia, but this production was predicated on two separate actors so couldn’t make anything of it. Hannah Young played Goneril today, but as she understudies Regan as well, Katy Stephens played her own part. I must say, the understudies didn’t seem out of place at all.

The performances were more broad-brush this time around, which may have worked better for us, but we were still moved during the later scenes, such as Edgar’s discovery of his father’s blinding. I did nod off a bit during the first half, but since the World Snooker Championship final didn’t finish till well after midnight last night, it was only to be expected.

Paul Hamilton did well as Kent (and didn’t block our view once), Adam Burton was nicely evil as Edmund, Ansu Kabia did a good job of Edgar, and I liked Sophie Russell both as the fool and as Cordelia. James Gale did well enough as Lear, though there’s so much range to the part that it’s asking a lot for an understudy to get a performance up to speed so quickly. Still, I could see him as the kind of man to revel in flattery and then go insane when he comes into contact with harsh reality.

An interesting afternoon then, if not the most enjoyable one.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – February 2010


By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 22nd February 2010

This was only the fourth performance. I felt there was some good stuff, and some things that didn’t work so well. The biggest problem was blocking – Darrell d’Silva as Kent kept blocking our view through several scenes, and didn’t budge for up to five minutes! Also, I didn’t care for the flickering lights – if the acting can’t create the tension required, those lights ain’t gonna do it. And when there was a good atmosphere of suspense created, I found the lights distracted me.

The set design was a warehouse, much dilapidated and crumbling – very industrial grunge. A square plinth was raised or lowered in the middle of the stage as required. Assorted lights hung over the stage, from a chandelier to modern strip lights. There was also a bell in the far right corner with a rope that hung down to the stage. Furniture and other props were brought on as needed, and the setup and removal was pretty brisk.

They used Edwardian/first world war costumes and uniforms for the daughters’ side, with Lear and Cordelia in romantic medieval dress, and using swords. Contrasting the disillusionment of the ‘modern’ age with the romantic ideals of earlier times, perhaps? This production also used the technique of bringing the characters for the next scene on stage, having them speak the first few lines of that scene, then holding their position while the stage is cleared or reset. I only remember it being done a few times – will this change? Also, this production blended three scenes so that all three sisters are on stage at the same time – Goneril reading her letter from Edmund, Cordelia praying for her father, and Regan trying to tempt Goneril’s letter to Edmund out of Oswald’s keeping. Nice touch.

In terms of the staging itself, they had enough actors in the cast to provide Lear with a number of followers at the start, but I felt there wasn’t enough of a reaction from them when Goneril was telling her father off. The advantage of having large numbers to show how Lear’s followers leave him was negated by the deadening effect if we don’t see any reactions.

The storm scene used ‘real’ rain, falling on the raised plinth, with only Lear getting wet. Not much thunder, so the lines were easier to hear, but there was much less tension. The interval was taken after this, when Gloucester led Lear away to shelter.

When Lear has been brought to shelter, and has the trial of his daughters, Edmund had previously been left at the back, sitting in a chair at a desk, having just betrayed his father. As the next scene is set up, Goneril appears from behind the curtain and straddles Edmund. Didn’t see what else happened – too caught up in the scene in the foreground. After the trial, the Fool chooses not to go with Kent and Lear to Dover, and isn’t seen again, hanged or otherwise.

The battle sequence, with Gloucester still lying in a corner of the stage, was done by each side striding across a lit diagonal, followed by the sound effects of gunfire, etc. Then several bags deposited small piles of sand across the stage, although one bag kept going with a small dribble of sand through the rest of the scene – intentional or accident? Certainly distracting. [From understudies run, it was an accident – didn’t happen for that performance.]

Edmund has a pistol during the duel, but with a big two-handed sword to deal with, he doesn’t get a chance to draw it until later, when a watchful soldier disarms him. The duel was over quickly, a good choice, I think.

The performances: Kathryn Hunter was good as the fool. I don’t know if I’m just getting familiar with the lines or they were better delivered tonight, but I got more than usual from this part – probably a bit of both. Greg Hicks’ performance is good overall, but still a little patchy. Once or twice he reminded me of Lily Savage – not an image I usually associate with Lear. I think it was the large fur collar on his jacket that gave that impression. He was believable in the mad scenes, although he didn’t display as much emotion as some I’ve seen. Not sure what Lear was like before the play begins, how did he ever hold a kingdom together? This production may have suffered a bit from the discrepancy between the set and the costumes, especially in the first half – the performance didn’t seem to fit in that space. I felt it worked better in the second half, as the military uniforms blended in more.

Katy Stephens was good as Regan, and well matched by Kelly Hunter as Goneril. Both were predatory, and I got the feeling that their treatment of Lear wasn’t premeditated from the start, but when they confronted Lear together at Gloucester’s place they took the opportunity to tighten the noose. I’m not sure about the other performances yet, although James Tucker was good as Oswald, those lines that he was left with anyway.

The cuts we noticed – if it be lawful, I take up what’s cast down (one of my favourite bits!), Oswald’s lines asking Edmund to take the letter to Edgar, Lear’s lines at the end about Cordelia reviving.

Overall, I hope this improves, but I’m not banking on it.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – February 2009


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Young Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th February 2009

The set was interesting, and needs to be described in detail. We were sitting just to right of centre, in the second row. The seats this time were in a wide horseshoe, with the entrance off to our left. At the back of the stage was a set of concrete steps, some chipped and worn, with grasses and flowers sprouting from them; the effect was something like a disused railway station. There was a doorway back left, and about halfway down on that side there was a platform area, big enough to contain a trapdoor. On the right, there was a broken-off tunnel entrance towards the back, and another entrance nearer ground level. A small door on that side gave access under the stairs. Centre front, and very close to the front row (which is why we sat in the second row), was a water trough, partly filled with water. A curved tap arched over the left hand side of the trough, while the right hand side had a wooden cover, allowing it to be used as a seat. The trough was also used for the stocks. In the opening scene, there was a throne sitting in the middle of the steps, and two plush chairs front left and right. Other furniture was brought on as required, though as most entrances involved steps, it must have involved a lot of planning.

I enjoyed some parts of this production, but not all, and some of the choices left me completely detached. To begin with, there was a mix of accents, mostly northern but with a couple of Irish as well. I found the actors’ delivery was sometimes weak, and this wasn’t always helped by the accents. The performances were mostly very good, and the relationships between the characters were clear and generally believable. I didn’t take to Edmund; with his Irish accent and lack of clarity he didn’t come across so well for me. The smaller parts were fine, but didn’t have much to do, and although I found Cordelia lacking in personality in the early stages, I was aware for the first time towards the end that she’s reluctant to speak to Lear because she doesn’t know how he’ll feel about her.

For the other characters: the fool (Forbes Masson) was excellent, very bitter and clearly getting through to Lear with his comments. He’s also got a lovely singing voice, which was put to good use several times. Goneril was very good. She came across as an older daughter who’s seen her father behaving badly for many years, and has learned to stay quiet and out of the way till his fit is over or he’s left the room, and that’s what she does. She was very still during the love competition, while the others were doing their stuff, and she mostly looked away, at the ground or occasionally at her husband. She’s about seven months pregnant(?), which gives greater emphasis to Lear’s curses later on.

Regan is clearly the middle daughter, jealous because she’s missing out on his affection, and determined to put on a show of being loving, presumably to try and win Lear’s attention if not his love. She starts up a chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” for Lear’s first entrance. Kent was OK, but didn’t come across strongly. He was wearing a dog collar (religious rather than canine), and neither of us could figure out why. I noticed in the scene with Gloucester, he didn’t have his disguising specs on, and when Gloucester refers to “poor banished Kent”, he realises this, slips them out of his pocket and puts them on discretely.

Gloucester himself was more bluff in manner than I’ve seen before, and the emotional changes didn’t come across as clearly as I’m used to – production rather than acting I suspect. On the whole, I got the impression that Rupert Goold didn’t want to be bothered with all that depressing emotional stuff that usually goes on in Lear, but he did want to have some splendid visual stuff instead, preferably gory and with a high yeugh factor. So for the blinding scene – and this is a first, me actually watching any part of this bit – the second eye was removed by Regan herself. Cornwall held Gloucester down while she pressed on the second eyeball with her manicured fingers, finally leaning forward and sucking the eyeball out with ferocity and for quite a long time. She then stood up and slowly, very slowly, moved towards the water trough at the front, mouth unmoving. At last she squirted the fake eyeball out of her mouth and collapsed over the trough, retching away. Pretty yeugh, for me and quite a lot of the audience. And there was more to come, though nothing can be quite as bad as that scene.

When Edgar comes forward promptly (for once) at the third blast of the trumpet (didn’t sound much like a trumpet to me, and the answering blasts on the siren seemed a bit unnecessary), he emerges from below the rear step with a Union Jack wrapped round his face as a mask, carrying a pole with a small yellow flag on it, and with two wooden swords tied to his waist with a twine belt. Edmund and Edgar then start their fight with these swords, but it’s a silly business, swatting each other’s swords like children, and it’s only when they discard the swords that the real fight begins. They grapple pretty viciously, and finally Edgar gets Edmund on his back on the ground. That’s when the swords come back into play. Or at least one of them. Edgar pushes the point of it into Edmund’s mouth to kill him. It’s unpleasant, it’s messy, and it doesn’t strike me as being an effective way of fatally wounding someone so that they’ll be around just long enough for the reconciliation, the (belated) warning about Lear and Cordelia, and some final words about the two dead daughters. But that’s just me. Anyway, they’d lost me on Edgar’s bizarre entrance, and didn’t manage to get me back again before the end.

Neither of us could figure out the reasoning behind that choice of wooden swords during the trip back to the hotel, though in the morning I realised that it might have been due to the use of modern weaponry in this production. How do you square the sudden use of swords when they’ve been brandishing various types of firearm all evening? Personally I don’t have a problem with that idea – people could still fight a duel with swords if they wanted to – but it’s the only idea I could come up with for that choice.

We had watched the Newsnight Review section on this production, and so we were slightly surprised tonight that certain things were different, particularly the loss of the three glass cases which had been used to demonstrate splitting the kingdom. Whether it was for practical or artistic reasons, these were replaced with three pieces of paper, or envelopes. That worked just as well, for me, and prevented the stage being cluttered up with unwieldy props.

There were a number of other interesting or unusual stagings. When Lear is out in the storm, and Gloucester rescues him, he takes them to a potting shed, where instead of a joint stool, we have two pot plants. The actual plants are removed, so only the pots are being put on trial. The bench in this shed is the one used when Gloucester is being blinded. (No need to go into that again.) Earlier, when Edmund is seducing his father to the dark side, it’s staged with Gloucester as the two lads’ trainer, sitting near the top of the steps while they do their exercises and Edgar goes for several laps of the theatre. During his time off stage, Edmund works on their father, and there are glances at Edgar as he goes by during this scene, with Edmund having to restrain the duke on Edgar’s final pass. Edgar is then conveniently present for Edmund to work on alone. This certainly has the advantages of showing us that Edmund is a risk-taker, and letting novices know who Edgar is, but I found it contrived, and as the idea wasn’t used again, it didn’t deepen my understanding of the characters nor the production.

The fool didn’t die in the storm or afterwards; this time he apparently gets to Dover. He’s with Lear in the awakening scene, dressed in a doctor’s white coat, but with his fool’s outfit underneath, his hat (coxcomb) in his hand, and still wearing his makeup. Well, they do say that laughter’s the best medicine. So when Lear is mourning, amongst other things, that his “poor fool is dead”, it’s likely he also has been hanged for being on the losing side.

The storm scene was an unusual combination of music, movement, water and dialogue. Lear used a microphone – there was another one during the “who loves me best” scene – and he is carried on by the cast, initially held aloft and then lowered to the ground. There’s a fine mist of water coming down over the steps where all this takes place, the music is very loud, and what with the cast doing some slow and impenetrable mime or dance during all this, I completely lost the lines and any sense of what was going on, intellectually or emotionally. It may have looked good, temporarily, but so much was lost that I would have to rate this as the worst staging of the storm scene that I’ve experienced. The water, by the way, ran onto the floor space, but didn’t get anyone else wet. And Goneril went into labour at this point, clutching her belly and having to be helped off (I think). When she turns up back home to discover the news about Cornwall being dead and the war about to start, she’s pushing a pram, so the birth was successful, and the baby is soon picked up by Albany – he’s more maternal than Goneril, especially in this production.

At the end of the second section – we had an interval and a pause tonight – Cordelia appears at the back with a soldier, and they do a slow-motion thing, backlit, to show that she’s arrived. OK, but didn’t do a lot for me. The early scenes with Lear’s unruly knights were a bit lacking in the knight department, and in general there was more of the domestic about this production than others I’ve seen. Regan is poisoned by a strawberry French fancy, the only one on the plate (the others are chocolate).

So to the main event, as it were, the central performance itself. Pete Postlethwaite is a tremendous actor, and his performance didn’t disappoint. I felt the production hampered it occasionally, but it still shone through, filled with an intelligent understanding of the human experience and the talent to show us lots of small details in what is a huge performance. The production choices meant that this was more of a working-class Lear, a family man who doesn’t understand what family’s about, and who shows remarkably little interest in his future grandchild, though perhaps grandparenthood only kicks in for some people when the baby’s actually born. His erratic behaviour is corroborated by his daughters’ different responses to him. Certainly, they have different personalities, but their attitudes have been shaped by long years with a temperamental man, who can shower affection one minut, and be a block of ice the next. The set implies that Lear hasn’t been a very good king – everything seems to be going to rack and ruin, and Lear’s comment about not having cared enough for the poor compliments this. Despite this, we have Kent and Gloucester, both of whom are loyal and also surprised when Lear banishes Cordelia. This is always a puzzle, and I felt this production didn’t even attempt to provide an answer. Which is fine, though it doesn’t add to my understanding of the play.

Lear was suitably full of himself at the start, all jolly and looking forward to the wonderful things his daughters were going to say about him, especially Cordelia. He brought on the microphone stand himself, and set it up to the left on the lower steps. Goneril was slow to get started, but did her best, Regan had to think for a bit to outdo her sister, and Cordelia, sitting on the trough, gave us all her asides by leaping into the middle of the stage. Lear’s rage at her refusal to play his game was good, and by throwing the last envelope on the floor, we could enjoy a little tussle between Cornwall and Albany about who gets it first.

Lear’s anger when returning from hunting to find all is not at it should be, came across as bluster more than real rage. He’s so used to being obeyed that he doesn’t know how to handle disrespect. Another sign of a decadent kingdom, when he hasn’t even had any opponents to deal with. As I’ve said, the fool was very bitter this time, and Lear does take his points on board, starting to realise that he’s done a foolish thing. His cursing of Goneril is perhaps more powerful with her being pregnant, but as the text doesn’t include her pregnancy, it actually lost some power for me because the obvious bump in her middle wasn’t being referred to explicitly. She holds it together well while he’s there, but she’s clearly shaken by it.

His descent into madness during the storm was obscured by the effects and music, sadly, though I did find it moving at times, and entirely believable. Later, at Dover, with Gloucester saved from himself, Lear appears in a woman’s front-buttoning dress, a floral print with a low V-neck. It’s very fetching, and sets the tone for the following conversation with Gloucester, which was more humorous in this production than I’ve seen before. It was still an emotional experience, mainly due to Edgar’s comments, but there’s always a risk that too much humour will lighten the mood so much that the darker elements don’t get a chance, and I think that happened a little bit here. Lear has been banging away at his crotch during some of his rants, and just before Gloucester asks to kiss his hand, Lear realises he’s produced some unfortunate substance from his nether regions, and gives it a wipe first.

The rest was all fine, and Lear died on the upper steps, with support from some other characters and Cordelia in his lap. The final lines were OK, though as I say I was out of the loop by that time, and they were running late, but the final touch was a nice one. I was very aware that with the birth of Goneril’s baby, there was now a proper heir to the crown, not the usual situation in this play. Albany’s request to Kent and Edgar, now Duke of Gloucester, to rule the country is therefore asking them to be regents rather than joint kings, and the final sound of the play is that of a baby crying. And why not, given the world his elders have left him?

Ultimately this was a patchy version of the play, with some good ideas and some less than helpful stagings. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and perhaps I won’t be so squeamish about the blinding scene in future – it’s unlikely I’ll ever see anything more unpleasant than this one.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Leaving – October 2008


By Vaclav Havel

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th October 2008

The set was a country garden. There was a pergola beside me with ivy trailing around it, a stone arched doorway far right, more bits of shrubbery round the walls, and a female nude in the stonework over the entranceway. A swing hung down towards the stone arched doorway, there was a round patio table with metal chairs in front of us, and a wooden bench to the left. The floor was part stone flagged, part brown carpet, which may represent dead lawn.

The play was about a Chancellor who has left office, and how things change once he’s no longer in power, especially as his political opponents are now in charge. Vilem Rieger, played by Geoffrey Beevers, is a middle aged man who had massive popular support when he took office, but now his legacy is coming under scrutiny. He has a long-time companion Irina, who herself has a ‘friend’ called Monika, and he lives with them and his mother in one of the official residences. A couple of former aides are helping him to pack up his things, although he feels he should be allowed to carry on staying in the house. His mother, known only as Grandma, potters about, making unfortunate comments, and there’s also a manservant, Oswald, who’s so old and rickety he should really be retired. Along with this group, there are Rieger’s two daughters, Zuzana and Vlasta, Patrick Klein, a member of the opposition party now in power, who manages to make a miraculous climb up the greasy pole right to the top in the course of the play, some journalists interviewing the great man now he’s no longer so great, and a political scientist Bea, who’s simply drawn to power and is willing to do the usual sort of things to latch on to the top dog. She starts off being attracted to Rieger, then drops him like a hot potato when Klein takes over. And before I forget, there’s also Vlasta’s husband Albin, who says little but is still scolded for being a chatterbox, and who streaks across the stage at one point, completely nude. He’s also wheeled on in the same state, having spent the night in the garden. And there’s a gardener who basically comes on to announce the various political changes in the country, like the gardeners in Richard II.

In fact, this play deliberately references other plays, specifically The Cherry Orchard and King Lear. Oswald is clearly Firs, the old servant who gets left behind when the family leaves, and who lies down on the sofa to die – Oswald does much the same thing. Both plays have a cherry orchard, but while the orchard in Chekov’s play is only being chopped down at the end, this orchard is being chain-sawed from a much earlier point. The King Lear references are abundant, as when Rieger finds he no longer has any influence, and is not only going to be booted out of the house, but may find himself in even deeper trouble. He ends up having to back the new regime, who have adopted his slogans and buzzwords, even though it’s clear they don’t intend to do anything about them. It was interesting to see that Irina, who seemed to be an older version of Bea, only staying with Rieger because he was powerful, actually stays loyal to him until this point, when he throws away his principles and supports the new power elite, specifically Klein. Once he does that, she leaves with Monika, although it’s possible Klein and Monika might develop a ‘special relationship’ themselves.

There’s also a Lear connection with the daughters. Zuzana is confident her boyfriend (French?) can put them up for a while, but later we hear that he’s been arrested on suspicion of something or other. Vlasta starts by offering her father a place to stay in their flat, then changes her mind as the pressure mounts. It may have been Albin’s (Albany) disagreement with that which led to her telling him to shut up as he was talking too much, and presumably triggered his bizarre behaviour.

There’s a load more stuff going on as one of the former aides plots to get himself into a good position in the new government, while the other worries about accounting for paper clips and a bust of Gandhi. Klein keeps turning up, each time with a more impressive job, until he’s finally made it to the top. He buys the residence, and plans to chop down the orchard and build a condo complex with facilities such as pubs, restaurants, shops, cinemas, and, of course, a posh brothel, located in the grand old house itself. He’ll be living in one of his other villas by then, as he’s cannily snapped up a job lot going cheap as the incoming party tries to balance the books. There’s also a lot of references to the Gambaccis, a Mafia-like family with fingers in more pies than they have fingers, if you see what I mean. All in all, this play gives us a complex and absurd picture of a country going to the dogs once a new party takes control, despite having had a good, if ineffective, leader for many years.

The autobiographical aspects are enhanced in this production because the author himself reads some entertaining notes during the performance – a disembodied voice telling us about the writing process, what the author intended at this point, how an actor should say a line, and generally giving us a humorous take on the whole process of writing a play. There’s a lovely spell when the stage has been left empty, and after quite a long pause, Havel talks about the difficulty of judging just how long to leave the stage unpeopled before the audience think the play’s finished and start leaving. Although I found his delivery a bit monotonous, I did enjoy his comments; the long boring bits were worth listening to for the punchlines.

I found myself enjoying this much more than I would have expected. I thought it might be a bit dull, but I now realise that Vaclav Havel probably wouldn’t know how to do dull. Although it obviously referred to Czech politics (Patrick Klein has the same initials as the chap who succeeded Havel), there were a lot of echoes of our own political scene, with Tony Blair having left office not so long ago. In the post-show chat, there were a couple of contributions from Czech ladies; an older woman who had lived through much of the massive changes that country has been through, and a younger woman who confirmed that she saw the play as essentially Czech in nature. She reckoned non-Czechs wouldn’t be able to get as much out of it, but even so, this production was apparently funnier than the original done in the Czech Republic.

There were only a few of the usual questions, what with these comments and questions about the nudity, etc. Someone asked about Irina being such a bitch, but I think the general feeling was that the characters all had some redeeming qualities, and that they weren’t just heroes and villains. I am definitely looking forward to the rest of the Havel season now.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – December 2007


By: WIlliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Company: RSC

Venue: New London Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th December 2007

This was a definite improvement on the Courtyard performance. For one thing, we could see what was happening on stage from the start, and although I didn’t get a headset, I found I could hear pretty much everything as well. There was one change to the cast that we noticed – Frances Barber was indisposed, and so we got to see Melanie Jessop play Goneril, which she did at the start of the run in Stratford but without being reviewed. I probably preferred Frances Barber, of the two, but this wasn’t bad at all.

Before I forget, I’ll just mention the palaver at the start, as about 400 women queued for about ten loos, causing the start to be delayed by a few minutes. This was why I didn’t get a headset, and God knows why we were sent into the auditorium from the wrong end of a very long row! Not the best start, but once the play got underway, I soon settled down to enjoy myself. I will also add that there was relatively little coughing, especially during the first half, although the mobile phones in the second half must have been unpleasant for those that heard them. (Four, according to Steve – I just caught the ice-cream van one near us.)

Enough of that stuff. The stage here was less thrust than in Stratford, and this suited the set much better – the action at the back wasn’t so far away. In addition, the open nature of the auditorium (more like Chichester’s main stage) made the action seem to come forward more. We were practically straight on to the centre of the stage, and got a really good view of everything.

The opening bit with Lear demonstrating spiritual as well as political leadership of his people was OK. It does set up his dominance, and also gets the opening characters on stage plausibly. I liked William Gaunt’s Gloucester in this – he’s well-meaning but gullible, and apart from Kent’s passionate reactions, he’s the main source for our emotional response to the way the King’s being treated. Or perhaps I should call him the ex-King, as his loss of power is very clearly demonstrated here.

We finally saw the speeches, as Lear stood at the lectern and used his cards to prompt himself. The court was obviously used to pandering to his every whim, and understood the need to flatter him, although the sisters were a bit unsure to begin with. I noticed this time that Cordelia stood at the back, didn’t give us her asides, and seemed to regard it all as a joke on her father’s part. Perhaps this explains her different relationship with him – her sisters know how unreliable he is and have suffered too much at his hands, while Cordelia indulges and is indulged. Boy, is she in for a surprise.

I didn’t see Regan reacting to the gift of territory this time – last time she was clearly thinking her portion wasn’t big enough; she’s a girl who always wants more. Cordelia still thinks it’s all a joke when she starts off at the lectern, but it all goes rapidly downhill when she doesn’t trot out the paean of praise her father expects. Her shock is clear, and was well played. I always like the bit where France takes up “what’s cast away” – sniff, sniff. After Cordelia’s “farewells” to her sisters (more like “drop dead, you bitches” in this performance), Regan and Goneril discuss the situation, and here it’s clear that Regan just hasn’t been attending those AA meetings. She snaffles not one but two drinks this time, the second on her way out.

The letter scene between Edmund and Gloucester was well done. I was even more aware this time that Gloucester had earlier come back on stage with France and Burgundy just as Kent is leaving to go into exile. His comments about the situation seem more pertinent because he’s only just caught up on events, and his use of an actual pamphlet to read out the predictions was a nice touch. Of course, the predictions are all going to happen, so it’s double fun to hear Edmund ridicule his father’s gullibility – partly because he’s right in general terms, and partly because he’s wrong as far as this play goes. Edgar, probably the only decent man in the play, made it clear that spending two hours in conversation with his father was a real snooze-fest. Ben Meyjes’s performance was just as good as I remembered from last time, with no significant changes that I noticed.

When Lear comes on with his cronies for his après-hunting drink before dinner, the rowdiness was either more than before or just more noticeable on the trimmed down stage. There seemed to be more interaction among the group during this scene than I remember, and the early signs of Lear’s madness are evident. Goneril didn’t react as strongly to his cursing, although she did still collapse, and the fool’s comments all came across clearly. “Nothing” is the key word of this play, and Lear’s response to one of the fool’s enquires echoes Cordelia’s “nothing” perfectly. He’s quite a good writer, this Shakespeare chap.

When Kent, in disguise, arrives at Gloucester’s place, there’s a party in full swing inside, and he’s waiting outside when Goneril’s servant arrives. Kent’s standing in front of the light, so naturally the other guy can’t see who he is, and the next thing he knows he’s being attacked, when he has nothing but his cowardice to defend him. Edmund takes a hand, and soon everyone comes out. Believe it or not, Regan doesn’t actually have a drink with her! But a tray with four goblets is brought out, and trust me, she has three of them.

I’ve just realised how Kent’s deliberate rudeness to this group both echoes and contrasts with Cordelia’s unintentional slight of Lear in the opening scene. Cordelia hardly says anything, Kent says plenty; she’s sent away, he’s put in the stocks. I do get Cornwall’s point, though; it’s easy enough for people to be rude and cover it up by claiming they’re just “plain speakers”, but then spin cuts both ways. Flattery can cover a multitude of sins as well.

From here it’s much as before. I keep recognising the validity of the sisters’ arguments – Lear has set up an almost impossible situation for them, and I’m not convinced even Cordelia would have been able to handle it, if she’d stayed. It’s often easier to be the one who comes in now and again, and who doesn’t have to put up with the daily grind of looking after an ageing parent. But of course they are two villainous bitches (apologies to any female dogs offended by that last comparison), and that was brought out fully in this production. It helped that Lear was relatively sympathetic – misguided and stupid, but not specifically malicious or monstrous. The sort of chap who was pampered and flattered as he grew up as heir to the throne, and never really got a sound grasp of reality, nor learned how to deal with setbacks. As long as everything went fine for him, he was easy enough to get on with, but woe betide anyone who crossed him, as he wouldn’t be able to handle it reasonably.

One other change I noticed was the way that Regan draped herself erotically against some poles when she gets a chance to be alone with Edmund. She whipped her coat off so quick she risked getting friction burns, and flung herself provocatively onto the prop, just before he turned round and saw her. Nifty work.

The fight between Edmund and Edgar looked a little weak this time, as if they’re getting a bit jaded. Some of the movements didn’t make sense, and didn’t seem to connect properly, and the energy wasn’t as focused. Kent’s departure at the end had him actually taking his gun out of his holster, an advance on last time, making it even clearer that he’s off to kill himself. In fact, I was half-expecting a gunshot off stage after Edgar’s closing lines – it would have added tremendously to the emotional impact at that point.

The whole production had a tremendous amount of detail, and all the performances were good, but the central part of Lear is key, and Ian McKellen’s performance was outstanding. I’ve already mentioned that this Lear was more sympathetic than most, but McKellen’s depiction of Lear’s emotional journey into madness was superb. It started early, was soundly based on Lear’s personality and developed in an intelligible manner, beautifully paced. It’s perfectly logical that he should strip off when he does (and it doesn’t hurt the box office).

As a general point, we find that Trevor Nunn’s productions are clear, decisive, and tend to the literal interpretation. For example, Lear’s comment at the end “and my poor fool is hanged”, which has been interpreted in various ways, is here demonstrated just before the interval, when Cornwall’s soldiers capture Gloucester and hang the fool. It’s a style of production that brings out a great deal of the plot and makes every line significant, and there’s much to commend it.

However, I still found myself not able to applaud for long afterwards. I did enjoy myself, and found it a very comprehensive and clear performance, with many individual highlights, and a strong sense of understanding the play, but I didn’t feel as enthused as for some Shakespeare productions. I’m very glad we saw it again, and from a better angle, as well as in a more supportive performance space, and I would recommend it to anyone (if you could get the tickets!), but I still felt a lack of connection somewhere – an intelligent but not necessarily a heartfelt production.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – June 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th June 2007

This is a relatively new experience for me, having to commend a production for its performances and some interesting insights, and yet come to the conclusion that it was all rather dull. It was the same thing last night at The Seagull, both by the same director, so it’s probably down to his style of production. I just find it odd that I should be able to get so much out of the performances, and yet feel so unenthusiastic at the end that clapping all through the bows was an effort. I’ve seen a number of productions where I clapped and clapped till my hands were sore, and still went on – Coriolanus in the Swan springs to mind – yet here I felt nothing much, not elated, not wrung out, not inspired, not cheated……. nothing. It’s very strange.

The performance did get off to a really bad start from our perspective – literally. As the organ ground out a massive ceremonial tune, a procession of all the nobles entered, togged up to the nines. They swept to the front of the stage, and then fanned out, beautifully obscuring the view, almost completely in our case. Fortunately, when Lear came on, they all bowed, knelt, and some even prostrated themselves (as far as I could see, that is). He was got up in some fancy robes that were more akin to religious finery than royal garb, although there’s often only a skimpy line between the two. He waved his arms around as if giving a Papal blessing to everyone, and then most of them wafted off, leaving Kent and Gloucester to introduce the novices in the audience to the political situation, and to Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund.

Throughout the play, information about what was going on was very clearly delivered. I learned more about the plot than I’ve ever known before, and this opening scene was no exception. The only downside was that I didn’t get any real sense of embarrassment on Edmund’s behalf about the way his father refers to him. However, it was clear that Edmund got the point, and wasn’t too happy about things.

Next up is the division of the spoils of war. The war in question is a war of words amongst the three daughters of Lear – who can flatter Daddy the best? Sadly, like a TV quiz, the winner has been picked in advance, and both Goneril and Regan are playing off for the minor places. (And they know it!)

Let me describe as best I can the way this was staged. Various servants brought forward a table towards the rear of the thrust, while a couple of chairs were placed in the front corners. One of these was just in front of us. Then, as the royal family and nobles enter, Regan and Goneril are shown to the chairs, and sit there for most of the scene, wide skirts fanning out beautifully to block even more of the view. Their respective husbands stand behind them, adding to the effect. So I can only tell you from the later events, that there was also a lectern to the left of the table, and it’s from here that Lear reads his apparently prepared speech, from index cards, tossing them away after he’s finished with each one. It is also from here that Goneril speaks, invisibly, to her father, and receives his approbation. When Regan does her turn, with her husband there behind her, giving her encouragement, I could at last see what I’d been missing. Fortunately, Monica Dolan gave us an excellent Regan. Hesitant at first, she gathers pace after a glance at her husband, and smarms a smile onto Lear’s face – he’d been bored with her comparisons to her sister. When she comes over to see what she’s getting, there’s a lovely look of concern and nosiness on her face, and as she heads back to her chair, she’s pouting at what she obviously sees as an inadequate return for her efforts.

Cordelia was standing behind her father during all of this, so we don’t get her asides this time. She delivers her “Nothings” just fine, and Lear sends her packing, which in this case means off to the entrance on our left. I found the Burgundy/France scene moving, and had a few sniffles, as I often do. Lear’s rage was well done, and sets us up nicely for his coming madness, and his two elder daughter’s concerns for the future. Incidentally, Regan picks up on Masha’s fondness for a glass of something, as she’s the only one to take a cup of whatever celebratory drink was on offer. In fact, she’s rarely seen without a glass in her hand, which proves her undoing later.

Kent is banished before Gloucester returns, so there’s a look of puzzlement on Gloucester’s face as they pass on his way in. Cordelia says goodbye to her sisters, and they then confer, more cosily than I’ve seen before. The impression so far is of Lear as a tyrant, ruling with absolute authority and becoming subject to serious mood swings. If he looks angry, everyone ducks. The costumes suggest Russia. The only problem, and it’s the usual one, is that if Lear is so despotic, why is Kent so loyal? Or Cordelia, for that matter?  It weakens them both to be devoted to such a cruel King.

As the chairs and table are removed, we see Edmund, on all fours, close to the ground towards the back of the stage. As I dealt with my irritation from the early difficulties with the sightlines, I reckoned I would start to get involved with his first monologue. It’s usually entertaining to see a villain lay out his wares, and this was a good reading of the part. He winds up Gloucester beautifully. I realised that Gloucester wasn’t there when Kent was banished, so of course he’s muttering about that as he comes on. I also liked Edgar’s little yawn and look of boredom when he confirmed he’d spent a couple of hours in conversation with his father the previous evening.

Kent comes back on in disguise, and we get to see the rabble of knights that Lear has surrounded himself with, as they lollop on stage, baying and shooting and generally causing mayhem. I do have some sympathy for Goneril at this point. Yes, she’s a malicious bitch (look who brought her up), but it would drive anyone mad to have to put up with a geriatric lad-about-town and his accomplices. I noticed that her complaint to Lear was in incredibly formal language, and quite hard to understand – why, I wonder?

Now we get the first appearance of the fool. Sylvester McCoy was good, though not the best I’ve seen. A lot of the humour and criticism of Lear came across, but not all. As we might have expected, he gets to use his spoons. At least there were several knights with Lear, to suggest his large retinue. There are some early signs of madness, as Goneril rejects his demands and he heads off to Regan. Lear’s cursing of Goneril leads to something of an over-reaction from her, I felt.

The tiff between the messengers was OK, but nothing special. I noticed that Regan was still at the booze. The scene where Kent, in disguise, is put in the stocks was quite mundane, and didn’t get much across.

The rumblings of the storm start a little earlier than I remember happening before, and I enjoyed the lengthier build-up. Lear’s increasing loss of sanity is very well depicted, and Edgar was also very good as Poor Tom. I liked Lear’s recognition of the plight of the homeless, and his decision to strip off makes perfect sense. When Gloucester helps him, he brings him secretly back into his own home, against orders, and the first half ends with Gloucester, having just got the King away, being arrested by armed guards, and the Fool being hanged, just for fun. Good staging.

In the second half, when Gloucester sends off a servant to lock the dangerous letter in his closet, Edmund takes the key from the servant when he returns – he’s shaping up nicely as a serious villain. I didn’t look too closely at the blinding bit, but I did notice that Regan was squealing almost orgasmically as each eye was removed. She’s another nasty piece of work. She helps Cornwall off this time, rather than ditching him.

Edgar’s performance was very moving both before and during the discovery of his father’s fate. Gloucester’s eyes weren’t bandaged this time. Regan does her best to entice Oswald to give it up (the letter to Edmund, that is), and is well unhappy when he refuses.

Albany is a bit wimpish throughout. Edgar’s gulling of his father about the cliff felt a bit flat (like the ground itself!), though his caring for his father, and Gloucester’s acceptance of his situation came across clearly. I missed Edgar’s comments on the two old men chatting together, which were cut, but then their sufferings were plain to see. In Edgar’s fight with Oswald we start to see how he’s toughened up.

After the battle, the doctor is brought on with Lear and Cordelia, and leaves his medicine chest behind. Goneril spots this, and sits on it, carefully taking a bottle out of the top shelf and secreting it in her pocket. She then uses it to poison the bottle of champagne that she pours Regan a glass from. Will Regan drink it? Of course she will, she’s got as little restraint as Masha. Even when Regan’s doubled up in pain, and carried off by some guards, she’s not going to let go of that bottle!

The fight between Edgar and Edmund was very good. It took some time, and involved wrecking the stage, such of it as hadn’t already been trashed by previous events. I got the impression that Edgar had probably had some training in how to use a sword when he was younger, but didn’t really care for the sport. However, he’s changed enormously through his own suffering, and seeing what’s happened to others, especially his father, and now he’s ready to put his fighting skills to use. They’re pretty rusty, but they get him through. Edmund, of course, is a seasoned villain and swordsman, but just can’t overcome his unknown opponent.

Lear carries Cordelia on – she’s a tall girl, so Ian McKellen must be stronger than he looks. Kent actually heads off after his line about joining his master, lifting up the flap of his holster to get his gun out as he goes. Finally, we get the closing lines, and we can all go home. Hooray!

It’s a shame I found this production so uninspiring, but there were good performances and some interesting ideas. Better luck next time.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – November 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Tse Ka-shing

Company: Yellow Earth Theatre & Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd November 2006

          Although part of the Complete Works Festival, we opted to see this production in Guildford, on its tour of the UK. I found it interesting, though not as emotionally engaging as I’m used to with Lear. The mixture of actors – half from the UK, speaking mainly English, and half from China, speaking mainly Mandarin – worked pretty well, although it can’t have been easy rehearsing this work. Checking out the surtitles, I realised that sometimes a short English line would translate to about two minutes of Chinese, while long English lines would occasionally produce a few terse Chinese syllables. I did feel this affected the rhythm of the piece, with some bits of dialogue trundling on long past the delivery of the emotional content (or the time it took to read the surtitles, depending).

The core idea was of a slightly futuristic world, with China now the major superpower, and Lear handing over the reins of his global business empire to his three daughters. Some of this worked quite well, and some just jarred. The final battle between Cordelia’s forces and the sisters’ troops was shown as a trading war on the exchange floor, with figures flying up and down so fast it was impossible to see what was going on. Hardly life and death. And what was the purpose? To break the Lear business empire? A bit difficult to do in one trading session, I would have thought. This version weakened the end scenes, when lives have supposedly been, and are being, staked on who ends up in charge. But in other ways this setting worked quite well. The use of mobile phones and text messaging to replace most of the usual letters was very well done. The initial scene with the daughters being asked to vie for their father’s love used video conferencing to good effect. Cordelia has obviously been sent to run the business interests overseas, and so has lost touch with her roots; she finds it difficult to speak what she feels, as Chinese is no longer her first language, and her cultural understanding has changed too. We can readily accept in our society the idea of older, Asian cultures having a strong paternalism that’s no longer so prevalent here. And family business empires are often run by Alpha+ males, who expect everyone else to obey without question, while perhaps having a few quirks of personality that can seem out of place in an otherwise rational person. So all that fitted, and Cordelia’s obvious separation from her family comes across loud and clear. The marriage proposals had to be ditched, but that’s a minor price to pay.

With so few actors there was a lot of doubling as well, even with the cuts. Only Zhou Yemang stuck to the one role, Lear. I found it confusing at first, especially when David Yip came on in one scene, having previously been Gloucester, now playing Albany. I realised eventually that there were subtle changes of costume, but it took me a while to adjust. Overall, it worked reasonably well.

One excellent idea was to have the fool expressed as Lear’s inner thoughts, adding to the sense that he’s cracking up. The rest of the cast, wearing uniform robes, stood round him speaking some of the fool’s lines, while Lear reacted much more emotionally to what he was hearing. I liked this interpretation a lot. In fact, I found Zhou Yemang’s portrayal both restrained and moving – he conveyed a sense of the barriers this man has erected around himself, and the tremendous upheaval he’s going through very well, especially considering the language difference.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at