Wednesday, 5 December 2007

King Lear - RSC 2007

King Lear
Royal Shakespeare Company, London, UK.

Trevor Nunn’s production of King Lear, starring Ian McKellen, originally opened at The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in March of this year. It attracted much publicity when the press night was postponed until the end of May due to leading lady Frances Barber sustaining a knee injury which meant that her understudy had to step into the role. The press were asked to delay their reviews until the official press night when Barber would return, something that many reviewers were none too happy about. The play then went on a world tour before returning to the New London Theatre in Drury Lane, in repertoire with Chekov’s The Seagull (also featuring McKellen).

The play begins sharply, with a scene of high ritual and drama as Lear, his daughters, and courtiers, enter the palace. The music is loud and oppressive as they encircle him, bowing and kneeling in almost religious deference. As Lear, Ian McKellen rages and commands, whimpers and babbles, and questions, questions, questions. The much publicised nudity, where McKellen drops his trousers and tries to rip off his shirt, is wholly justifiable: Lear is trying to emulate the spirit (Poor Tom, played by Ben Meyjes) he thinks can answer his questions. On the heath, he gets soaked to the skin in a real and prolonged rainfall and water is flung everywhere as he jerks and staggers about. Seeing this once great king wrestled and pulled about by his attendants as they try to keep him from harm is heartbreaking, especially for anyone who has experienced the pain of dementia in an elderly relative. As he stumbles back and forth from incoherence to lucidity, we see the damage that not only age but also grief wreaks on a person.

Sylvester McCoy (perhaps best known for his TV role in Doctor Who) is Lear’s Fool, brightly garbed and twittering at Lear throughout. To some viewers annoying, I found this character to be extremely touching in his devotion to his master. When the Fool leads his master around by the hand, we get the sense that he is doing his best despite not really having a clue. His desperate attempts to wrench Lear from his grief and madness (magic tricks, playing the spoons, singing) are pathetic to watch, and seeing them cling to each other as the world around them falls apart is eminently sad. When the Fool gets hanged, we see the entire process, and he is left swinging from the scaffolding as the lights go down and the audience leaves their seats in the interval.

It’s been a long wait for this production to reach London, so you can probably imagine my disappointment on finding that once again Frances Barber was indisposed and that the part of Goneril would be played by understudy Melanie Jessop. Jessop plays Goneril as prim and upright, an ice-queen with an acid tongue, who believes herself to be wholly invulnerable. Although I would have liked to see Barber in the role, I don’t feel that the character lacked anything for being played by an understudy. Goneril was almost admirable in her monstrousness. Monica Dolan as Regan is sweet and smothering, hiding her callousness beneath pretty smiles and prettier dresses. Where Goneril commands, Regan asks sweetly. It is truly horrifying to see her cackling and clapping like a joyful little girl, as Gloucester (William Gaunt) has his eyes plucked out. Humour is played in the relationship between Edmund (Philip Winchester) and both of these ladies, but it is a shocked laughter that comes from the audience, that these two daughters could betray all of their own kin. Cordelia (Romola Carai) was a surprising departure from the expected. No mild heroine, this Cordelia is angry and petulant from the start, raising her voice to her father and even childishly stamping her foot at him. When she returns later on, she has softened considerably in attitude. I felt that Carai’s performance at the start of the play was a little stiff, but perhaps it was the attitude of the character that I found insincere. Ultimately I liked the juxtaposition of mild but evil Goneril and Regan, with hot-tempered but good and sincere Cordelia.

The New London Theatre seats its audience in a semi-circle around the stage, allowing a clear view from all angles, as well as allowing the actors to enter the stage from several directions. The set itself is a vast palace hall, once majestic, now uncared for and falling into decay. Greek columns that gradually dwindle in size support a marble cornice that curves into the distance in a wonderful trick of false perspective. A slanted slat roof completes the sense of vastness. Huge bare floorboards run to dried mud at the stage edge, and a single rectangular column dominates the centre of the stage, supported by partially concealed scaffolding. Red cloths are draped across balconies and used as a backdrop, signaling – what? – opulence, danger, blood, perhaps. The symbolism in this set is not subtle to begin with, and designer Christopher Oram chooses to further elaborate on the theme by having the set disintegrate throughout the play. Cracks and holes appear, masonry crumbles, extra scaffolding is erected, and finally the roof caves in. Conversely, Neil Austin’s lighting design is an exercise in subtlety, imperceptibly shifting the illumination of the players in order to enhance the mood as well as allow for seamless scene changes.

There is much unexpected humour in this production and this contrasts starkly with the overall tragedy of the story. I left the theatre with the reinforced understanding of just how nasty some of Shakespeare’s works can be when put into production. Nunn and McKellen have managed to create a wonderful and highly emotive piece of theatre, and one that – for many reasons – will not be easily forgotten. 

This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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