Review: KING LEAR (London, Eng.)

by Lynn on July 4, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Olivier Theatre, London, England

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Mendes
Designed by Anthony Ward
Lighting by Paul Pyant
Projections Designed by Jon Driscoll
Sound by Paul Arditti
Music by Paddy Cunneen
Starring: Stephen Boxer
Tom Brooke
Richard Clothier
Kate Fleetwood
Anne Maxwell Martin
Michael Nardone
Simon Russell Beale
Adrian Scarborough
Stanley Townsend
Sam Troughton
Olivia Vinall

A stunning production that gets into the head and heart of a man who had to go mad to see the light.

The Story. Well we do know the story, don’t we? Bully King Lear decides to divide up his kingdom amongst his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and it all goes wrong. A sub-plot is about another father, namely Gloucester, who has two sons. One is Edgar his legitimate son and the other is Edmund, his bastard son. He is duped by Edmund to think Edgar is evil and plotting. It goes wrong for Gloucester too. Oh these difficult fathers and their resultant ruined, wounded children.

The Production. Anthony Ward had designed an impressive, spare but elegant set. The costumes are modern. Suspended above the stage is a huge sun with a halo of shooting red flames. The body of this sun is yellowish with rippling strands of the flames. Close to show time another sphere, this time black, floats slowly, like an eclipse, to cover the sun completely. Below on the stage is a narrow wood plank that goes from upstage down over the edge of the stage into the center aisle of the theatre.

The curtain rises on Kent holding a piece of paper that formally announces the division of the land. He’s a bit taken aback as he snaps at the paper and says to Gloucester, that he thought the King liked Albany better than Cornwall. This is a clear, neat way of showing that King Lear has already divided the land, and, according to Gloucester, he’s divided it absolutely evenly, and not favored one son-in-law over another. Note that Lear divided the land amongst his sons-in-law and of course whatever suitor won Cordelia.

For the formal division of the land the sisters and their husbands sit at a long table with six high-backed chairs. There is an empty chair to the right of Cordelia, which would have been the place for her husband. There are three microphones, one before each man, and one in front of the empty chair. Behind them are three courtiers, each holding a large, leather bound portion of the land being divided; further proof that Lear has already divided the kingdom and this game of “Tell me how much you love me,” is a cruel joke. Should anyone wonder how you have two damaged daughters like Goneril and Regan with a father like King Lear?

When each daughter has to speak, her husband slides the microphone to her. An added touch for Goneril is that the microphone squeaks when she speaks. King Lear sits in an impressive chair facing up stage at the table, his back to the audience. He too has a swivel microphone that stands beside his ‘throne’ so that he can position it in front of his face. When Goneril is speaking, Lear gets up, walks around the table, past Goneril and Regan. When he comes to Cordelia he kisses her on the head and goes back to his seat. No pressure, Cordelia to tell the guy what he wants to hear. No pressure at all.

Regan knows the game. When her time comes she sashays and flirts with her father. She sits on his lap. He loves it. He gives her a peck on the lips when she’s finished. It’s not a long, lingering kiss but my eyebrows do knit with that little peck.

Watching all this quietly is the Fool. He has entered down the aisle through the audience and sits on a box or something in the aisle, with his back to the stage, facing us. He wears a jaunty fedora with a feather in it.
When Cordelia can’t tell Lear how much she loves him in the manner of her sisters (“Nothing, my Lord.” “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again”), Lear begins his ranting rages. It’s the first time anyone has opposed him and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. So he banishes her. Then Kent defends her and he too is banished.

When Lear visits Goneril and Regan with his retinue of 100 boorish men, you can see the strain on their households. At one point Lear and his men come back from a hunt and hurl a full grown dead deer on the table. They drink bottles of liquor. Of course the daughters are none too pleased.

With Gloucester and his two sons, Edmund the bastard son is neat, tidy, wears a three piece suit, carries a brief case and looks like a responsible man. Edgar is sloppy, bed-head-hair sock-footed, carrying a bottle of wine from which he drinks. He doesn’t look too ambitious about anything. I like that juxtaposition. The bastard is respectable so it seems and is always trying to get his father’s favor and Edgar the slob already has his father’s favour, until his father is easily duped by Edmund into thinking otherwise.

Perhaps the most damaged of all of them is Goneril. Lear can’t even raise a complimentary thought about her. It’s “Our eldest, Goneril” when asking her to speak about her love for him, whereas it’s “Our dearest Regan.” And “Our joy, Cordelia.” Goneril gets his wrath. He curses her to be sterile. He calls her “My corrupted blood.” She shrinks under the invective. But when he rails at her, screaming, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” she can’t take it anymore and smacks him across the face that took him totally by shocking surprise. Me too. I said, “WOW!” perhaps a bit too loudly. Goneril’s turning point. I’m sure that smack is a surprise to her too. Her key to freedom, to be able to fight back.

Regan uses her feminine tricks on him. She’s coy. He is pleading, trying to play one sister against the other. It doesn’t work of course. Finally Regan gets her chance to let him know how she feels. As his last resort he says, “I gave you all.” And she replies with deliberate, controlled anger, “And in good time you gave it” pausing after each work for the full effect. Lear sails right into his next lines. Of course, I finally realize. He doesn’t think he’s done his daughters wrong all their lives. So while it’s important for Regan to get him between the eyes with that wonderful line, Lear still doesn’t get it. He does get it with Cordelia.

The storm-heath scene is dandy. Loud, dark, lightening. At one point Lear and the Fool are on the strip of wood during the storm. Then it rises up with both on it; Lear is at the top with the Fool crouching behind him, holding his leg, perhaps to anchor him. It gets so high, about 45° that I fear for the safety of the actors, not the characters! So a wonderful effect that kind of backfires…..I am taken out of the play worrying about the actors, as opposed to being in the play marveling at the characters. As the plank lowers down I see in the gloom that a small platform has also appeared on which Lear can stand, so he wasn’t at an angle at all, but on a piece of wood that appeared out of the rising plank.

Poor Tom (Edgar) is in fact naked as the lines say. He does cover up with a blanket of sorts. The hovel they discover is in fact a house being renovated. There are fixtures that are covered in plastic, one being a bathtub. The joint stool that the Fool mentions is in fact a steel toilet (or perhaps it was a bidet, not quite sure).
A startling scene, interpretation…..the Fool places himself in the plastic covered bathtub, sleeping, one foot over this side, one over the other. He wears wild stripped socks that I want. In Lear’s deranged state, he imagines the sleeping Fool as some monster and clubs him to death. (That’s right, in this production Lear kills the Fool.) When Lear says that he will have breakfast in the night time (or whatever construction that line is) the Fool lifts his bloody arm and finishes the line and dies. Lear realizes too late what he has done. When he’s asked about the Fool Lear says with the slightest hesitation, he hanged himself, thus lying. We know it and so does he. Here’s the question: WHY?????? I’ve got to say it’s a bold decision and, uh, wrong!

Gloucester’s de-eyeballing scene. We are in Gloucester’s house. He has a huge statue of Lear outside it in honour of the king. To be specific, we are in Gloucester’s wine cellar. A wall of bottles, baskets of bottles. A few chairs. Cornwall and some of his thug-servants tie Gloucester in a chair, his left profile to us. He is hooded. The chair is tipped back and a thug with a bottle of liquor? White wine? pours the liquid onto the hood covering Gloucester’s face in a kind of ‘water-torture.’ Gloucester is asked about Lear etc. The torture is to loosen him up. This happens three times, each time more liquid in his face each time for a bit longer. He doesn’t cry with the burning of the liquor in his eyes, which I find odd.

Then the real business. The thugs there turn Gloucester’s chair so that his back is to us. Cornwall—not a nice man—approaches him and from what I can tell sticks his thumb in one of Gloucester’s eyes and then throws the eyeball in a basket. Then, for a bit of variation, Cornwall approaches Gloucester again, this time with a corkscrew and shoves it in the socket. Screams from Gloucester. No breathing from the audience. Then Cornwall takes Gloucester’s head and turns it back and forth for more damage and then (wait for it) we hear a pop sound. The detached eye is thrown along with the corkscrew into the same basket as the first eyeball. The audience groans. Woow.

Director Sam Mendes does a bit of cutting at the end. When Edgar appears to Albany he doesn’t say to blow a warning three times and he will appear. He just appears. Nor does he say, “My name is Lost”, when he comes face to face with Edmund who asks who he is. Edgar says his name and goes after his brother and stabs him. Also cut is any redemption of Edmund when he is asked where Lear is. Edmund dies before he can tell. But just then Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia, so it of course wouldn’t have helped at that point to know where Lear was and to save them. And I realize they cut the lines that says that Lear is four score. Why do that? The actor playing him is in his 50s but I would believe he’s 80. Silly cut.

Also odd is Kent’s ‘disguise’ which is just him with buzzed hair and a trimmed beard. None of the court recognizes him later but when he sees Cordelia she recognizes him immediately. Odd.

The acting. Simon Russell Beale is the most unlikely of actors. He’s short, squat, has a quick, waddle walk, and is simply brilliant in anything he does. He has played Hamlet, Richard III, Candide, Ariel, a cross-dressing soldier, and now King Lear. He is mesmerizing, dangerous, raging, damaged, and when he whimpers, “Please let me not be mad” he is heartbreaking. His hands flutter as he is mad. And he plays him with no neck. Truly. The costume comes right up to his head. His shoulders seem hunched up. Tight. But it also makes him looked stooped. As the play goes on his seems more and more stopped. Liked that. He gets into the very toes, let along the heart and soul of every single character he plays. And here as Lear, he makes him huge and human. When you least expect it you find yourself weeping for that angry, damaged man. Astonishing.

As Goneril, Kate Fleetwood is sleek, poised, a quivering mass of insecurity when her father is near, conflicted, hard and driven. When she is coming on to Edmund, she unzips her long slim skirt from the hem up to the thigh, revealing a lot of leg. When her husband comes into the scene she quickly puts the zipper down, covering up the leg.

As Regan, Anna Maxwell Martin is coy, flirty, sexually active, and dangerous and is having such a great time being evil, she has forgotten to take the audience along with her for the ride. She speaks far too quickly most of the time so that we don’t hear what she is saying because it comes out garbled. She tosses her hair. She goes from quiet to screaming in a thrice, thrusts herself forward for effect to make a point, which is lost because between her garbled speech and her distracting movements, we don’t hear what she’s saying. She starts off well, but then as the production goes on I get a headache from gritting my teeth. Ms Martin is a fine actress. I’ve seen her elsewhere and she was terrific. But here that quick, garble does her character no favours. Is this the director? A skittish actress? Don’t know.

As Cordelia, Olivia Vinall is properly bland. As the Fool, Adrian Scarborough is the wisest character on the stage. First you see him and then you don’t. He arrives and leaves quietly. He loves Lear but has no qualms about telling him he thinks he’s made a grave error with banishing Cordelia. When Cordelia is about to leave, the Fool embraces her hard and she him, then he leaves quietly through the audience. This ‘now-he’s-here-and-now-he’s-not is part of his magic. Scarborough lends dignity and conscience to the part and play.

As Cornwall, Richard Clothier is rather one noted and not as evil as one expects, dexterity with a corkscrew notwithstanding. As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer is courtly and compelling when he realizes his error regarding his sons.

The two brothers are always tricky. As Edmund, Sam Troughton is posh, driven and cold-blooded. As Edgar, Tom Brooke is shlumpy, without ambition, easy going perhaps to the point of aimlessness. But on the heath he assumes the appearance of a crazed, naked man. At this point he is watchful, moving, focused.

Comment. Sam Mendes has directed a clear, arresting production. He reasons that homelessness is a huge factor in the play. Lear, Gloucester, Kent, the Fool and Edgar are all homeless. With this he also adds general homelessness of people off in the heath besides Edgar. This is also a theory of Antoni Cimolino, the director of King Lear at my Stratford in Ontario. (no I won’t and don’t compare the two productions, or any other production). I am not convinced this decision works. His other wild decision of Lear killing the Fool doesn’t fly either. That said, Mendes has created a gripping production and thanks to the gifted Simon Russell Beale, one I won’t forget for a long, long time.

Produced by the National Theatre.

Opened: January 23, 2014
Closed: July 3, 2014
Cast: 21, 17 men, five women, and armies of men when needed.
Running Time: 3 hours and 30 minutes.

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