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Howl, howl, howl, howl!
King Lear (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Member Name: hogsflesh
King Lear (Royal Shakespeare Company)
Advantages: Ian McKellan is as good as you'd hope
Disadvantages: The production is unsatisfactory
It’s on in the Courtyard Theatre, which is a temporary replacement for the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre, currently being rebuilt (good thing too, it was lousy). The Courtyard is a very nice theatrical space with a stage that juts out into the audience, rather like the Swan (at Stratford) or the Young Vic (in London), but bigger. All the seats seem to have a pretty good view of the action and there was tons of leg room. This is important, as the play clocks in at three and a half hours (with interval). The lobby space is perhaps a bit small (King Lear will be playing to packed houses) and there could have been more toilets, but otherwise I liked the theatre a lot.
But the production… something was missing. In discussing the play I’m going to liberally throw in plot spoilers. I make no apology for this; if you don’t know the plot, don’t go and see it. This is something that applies to almost all Shakespeare. You’ll enjoy yourself a lot more if you’ve read the play beforehand. No one, surely, is going to go and see this because they want to know what happens in King Lear; they’re going because they want to see how Ian McKellan plays it.
(The plot, briefly – King Lear decides to retire and gives his kingdom to his two evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, his good daughter, Cordelia, having been banished. The two evil daughters drive their father to insanity. Meanwhile, Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, has his half-brother Edgar disinherited and his father tortured. It’s profoundly tragic.)
The main attraction, of course, is McKellan. He’s possibly the greatest stage actor of his generation, and is now a proper star after all those Tolkien/X-Men films. He’s very good. He handles the changes from arrogance, through madness to broken semi-senility very adeptly. He’s appropriately monumental while throwing in enough human touches to make us believe we’re watching a real person. He does get his knob out, which might traumatise some, but what the hell. After all those asexual big-budget Hollywood roles he’s entitled to let it all hang out (and I was quite impressed. Every inch a king, as they say).
The rest of the cast are a bit of a mixed bag, sadly. William Gaunt, best known for some dire 80s sitcoms, is very good as the Duke of Gloucester, making a rather straightforward part interesting. The three daughters are good too. But the rest of the cast felt a little uncertain – the interpretations of the parts were fine, but the line-readings often felt hurried and uncertain (not something you expect at the RSC). To be fair to them, I saw the production when it had just opened, so I daresay they’ll settle into what they’re doing as things progress. Also, the excellent Frances Barber, who was to play Goneril, has had to temporarily withdraw due to injury, which means the part is played by her understudy, Melanie Jessop. She’s good, but I guess it might have thrown the cast off their stride a bit. I didn’t recognise anyone else in it except for Sylvester McCoy, playing The Fool, a potentially good bit of casting rather spoiled by his insistence on playing the spoons *all the time*, thus drowning out much of his dialogue.
But the production itself is disappointing. It’s quite good early on, neatly setting up Lear as an arrogant, self-deluded idiot who can’t see what’s obvious to everyone else. And the crucial ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ moment is played as a sudden whim of the King’s, rather than as a pre-planned bit of ritual, which gives it a different kind of impact than usual. But even in the early stages there are bits that aren’t right – the scenes between Edmund and Edgar don’t carry any real sense of urgency, for instance.
The general lack of urgency is one of the biggest problems. The pacing of the play isn’t handled well. There’s a sword fight towards the end which goes on for much too long. It’s a well-choreographed fight, but by that point in the play it’s a bit of a side-issue. Really, the only reason for drawing out the sword fight would be if it ratcheted up the suspense. Every second spent fighting is a second wasted – Lear and Cordelia’s lives depend on the fight ending quickly, and the right person winning, but this doesn’t feel that way at all. It just feels like the director decided they should have a long sword fight at this point to pep things up a bit. This really gets to the heart of what was wrong – as I’ve said, everyone going to see the play probably knows what’s going to happen. But this feels like the characters do too – it feels like they’re drifting through the story, rather than have it happen to them. This, of course, means that when the play’s blasts of bleak weirdness occur, they have none of the impact they should have.
Other problems involve interpretation. While I’m more than happy to concede that Trevor Nunn – a professional theatre director of immense experience and formidable reputation – knows a lot more than me about the play, I found some of his decisions absolutely baffling. He puts way too much emphasis on the fact that the characters in the play worship a pantheon of pre-Christian gods. This isn’t really *that* important, but it seems that Nunn has decided to make this the hook on which to hang this production. Unfortunately this means that characters frequently pray to their gods by looking upwards and waving their arms in the air. This is something that *might* have worked in, say, 70s Dr Who. Here it looks silly, and significantly reduces the power of the final scene of the play, which ought to be devastating, and maybe would have been if I hadn’t been giggling so much. Trevor Nunn’s a great one for attention to detail, but this is a big mistake.
There are all kinds of other little niggles. One character gets hung on stage – something for which there is scant basis in the play, and seems to have been done just to provide something exciting before the interval. Late on in the play, when everything’s moving pretty fast, one of the main characters dies offstage – this was fumbled, to the extent that I didn’t even notice the lines that mention it. The blinding of Gloucester was a *huge* let down. I like to see gore - actual eyeballs being thrown around. Here we just had lots of people surround William Gaunt and him screaming a bit. I’ve seen the RSC do full-on eye-gouging, tongue-ripping and liver removal on a much smaller stage. Gloucester’s blinding is essential – if nothing else, it keeps the school parties awake. This was a cop-out. Worst of all was Kent’s final exit – he’s going off to die of wounds he received in the final battle, but here he exits purposefully with a revolver, obviously intending to take his own life. This is appalling in every way and totally contradicts everything else Kent does in the entire play. There are lots of other details that annoyed me, but listing them all would be pointless.
Anyway, this is playing in Stratford until late June, after which it goes on tour. It might have sold out in Stratford (the website seems to suggest it has – tickets start at about £10 if any are still available). It’s just about worth seeing because Ian McKellan is great, and I doubt he’ll be playing Lear again. But this should have been an epic, must-see production, for all kinds of reasons, and instead was a bit of a let down.
Summary: The RSC's current production of Shakespeare's most monumental play
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