King Lear (2)

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I hadn’t felt up to tackling another Lear after the National’s electrifying production with Simon Russell Beale, all the way back in 2014*. But having heard so many good things about other Chichester Festival productions, and being a bit of an Ian McKellen fan, I decided this was a production I couldn’t, or maybe shouldn’t, miss.**

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My first thought was an uncharitable one – that if your running time is over three and a half hours, you had really better have a very good reason for opening with a tableau.*** When this was followed by an overlong national anthem I girded myself for even more of an ordeal than usual, but it settled down relatively soon into a vaguely modern dress, vaguely fascist piece – but with a few nice touches, like the pagan hand-up salutes that greeted every mention of the gods, which lent an unobtrusive fantasy air that helped the willing suspension of disbelief going and provided additional weight to Lear’s horrible curses on his daughters. The first half was staged in a series of panelled, red-carpeted rooms (the red carpet getting more and more stained and filthy as the show went on, particularly with the rain and the blood-letting – which I though was a nice touch). The second half was outdoors – a minimalist representation of the White Cliffs, and then the traditional abundance of camouflage for the war scenes.

The production also had a nicely twisted sense of humour – Lear literally cutting his kingdom into pieces with a pair of scissors, Cornwall taking out Gloucester’s eyes with a butcher’s hook in what I assume was a knowing nod to the rhyming slang**** – which helped to cut through the unremitting misery most of the play actually is.

Interestingly, this was not a production that sought to get away from the misery, at least in the sense of trying to make any of the unpleasant characters in any way sympathetic. Right from the start, an unsettling family dynamic was set up, with Goneril and Regan treating Lear like a petulant child – to be petted, indulged or ignored, but not treated as an equal. Meanwhile, Lear himself would retreat in faux tears when thwarted – the appearance of his handkerchief a sure sign a tantrum was likely to follow. Cordelia, the only grown up of the lot, was clearly doomed from the start. It did perhaps make Kent’s decision to stand by the king a little more baffling (in her place I would have been off to France with Cordelia like a shot), but this was the casting of Sinead Cusack came into its own. Not only did she radiate that sort of honour which you could believe would follow the king right or wrong, but in this day and age it was all too depressingly easy to imagine a man in power shouting at, disregarding, and punishing a woman for saying something (true) he did not want to hear.

The bad behaviour of men was a theme that continued. I could not fault Goneril for not wanting to support her father’s hundred knights when they drank, misbehaved, and terrorised the members of her household, both male and female. Likewise Edmund, who James Corrigan played very casually, no real fire, no sense he actually believed himself hard done by, just malevolence – it made the destruction of his brother’s life (and the implication that he killed the fool) all the more shocking. Mind you, the guys weren’t alone in being awful. While Claire Price’s Goneril was patronising and smug, Kirsty Bushell’s Regan was a giggling sex-mad ingenue who delighted in violence (matched with Daniel Rabin’s well-dressed but thuggish Cornwall). When the pair got entangled with Edmund it was a trio of awfulness which you could only look forward to ending.

Those characters who were pleasant or honourable only became so under adversity – Kent, obviously, but also Lloyd Hutchinson’s Fool, growing more honest as the King grows more foolish, Anthony Howell’s Albany, moving from puppet husband to denouncing fury. Luke Thompson’s Edgar never got a chance to be under anything apart from adversity – but he was a great presence nonetheless, trusting of his brother, wild in his betrayal*****, intelligent and kind – the interaction between him and Danny Webb’s Gloucester (and there’s another character that gets nicer – in his case after being maimed) was really well done. (And somewhere in there were more comedy props too for the random Yorkshireman who brought Edgar his clothes). Hell, even Edmund manages to repent while on his deathbed (in another comedic moment). All in all, when Cordelia came back to fight I didn’t feel – lovely and loving as Anita-Joy Uwajeh made her – that she had earned a place in the battle over what England had become.

At the centre of all of this, of course, was Ian McKellen’s Lear. It was a fairly understated performance – not overly violent, or mad, or demented – more that of an unpleasant man who learns to gain reasonableness as he loses his reason. As I said above, he started off petulant and manipulative (Goneril’s mummy/toddler act seemed as much response to him as her innate character) but became sweet and good-humoured – another character who gains grace through adversity. The lines were mainly soft and clear (The Duke of York is an intimate theatre – and I believe the Chichester even more so), although a number of the more famous ones (or at least some of my personal favourites) were hurried over, and “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” was entirely lost in the manufactured storm. It was a very generous performance I felt – part of an ensemble rather than a star turn. Lear and Gloucester in particular was very affecting – two battered old men together.

What I drew out of the production was how much store Shakespeare seemed to set in the redemptive power of suffering – how bleak, then, that final end when most of those who have undergone so much change – and those who have not – lie dead before us. Faint hope between them, Edgar and Albany, to bring the bloodied kingdom back together – when even Kent, the faithful stalwart, can only manage “All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly”. And yet I would not wish the dead back – the wonder is, we all endur’d so long. Three and a half hours, but it felt both longer and no time at all.


*And yes I’ve booked a ticket for his Richard II even if I am somewhat unconvinced by that casting, after seeing David Tennant, Ben Wishaw (on film) and a (much younger) Ralph Fiennes…

** Although I nearly did thanks to the ticketing website deciding I was a potential terrorist. So I ended up, unusually for me, in the Royal Circle with audience members around me who variously: smelled of mothballs; were sipping prosecco and wondering how their high-powered publishing career had got them there; and were telling afore-mentioned publisher how they practised walking anywhere they had to go before they had to go there…

*** Those of you who follow my twitter feed will know my patience with running times was a little eroded by Eyam…

**** I could have done without him then stamping on one of the eyes though…

***** I especially liked the way his underpants (no full nudity here) turned into a surprisingly capacious kilt/loincloth with, apparently, pockets.

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