The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Jonathan Miller’s touring production of King Lear for Northern Broadsides arrived at the Playhouse this week. It’s a stark, pared-down staging of Shakespeare’s starkest play, in which the weight of suffering at times feels almost as unendurable for the audience as it is for its characters.

The stage is bare, with only the hint of a proscenium arch sketched in by a curtain rail supported by two poles.  It looks very like a production might have when the play was first performed with the actors kitted out in Elizabethan costumes. The only concessions to modernity come with sparely-deployed sound effects and lighting: peals of thunder and lightning flashes during the storm scene, and Gloucester’s blinding conducted to the rear of the stage in blinding white light.

In his review of the production when it first opened in Halifax, Michael Billington of the Guardian commented:

Miller sets the action at the time when the play was written, in the early 17th century: an astute move since it was a period of moral questioning about both paternal and kingly authority. But what is striking is Miller’s avoidance of anything over-demonstrative in the staging. Lear’s division of his kingdom is an intimate, family affair rather than a gaudy public spectacle. There is no hint of his riotous train of travelling knights, and Gloucester’s blinding takes place out of view of the audience. […] That last is a great relief, sparing us both the extreme cruelty and desperate contrivance that normally accompanies the moment.

The text is stripped back, too in a production that consists of two 70-minute acts in which Miller maintains the pace with simultaneous exits and entrances, equivalent to jump cuts in the cinema. All of this, plus clear enunciation of their lines by the actors, brings a sharp clarity to what can sometimes seem a convoluted story.

Also striking in this production is the way in which everyone speaks with a northern accent. As Clare Brennan commented in her review for the Observer:

The everydayness of the tones lends an almost soap opera feel to the family conflicts that drive the action of the play. We recognise these people!

This was particularly apparent in the performances of Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, their grasping selfishness reinforced by the broad accents of Helen Sheals and Nicola Sanderson.

Dividing the kingdom
Dividing the kingdom

Despite recent familiarity with the play (I’ve seen three productions in the last few years), there are always things which strike afresh in each new staging.  This time it was notes: for the first time I became aware of how often notes are passed by messenger from one character to another, invariably with fatal consequences. I noted, too, how rapidly Shakespeare plunges the audience into the meat of the drama: after the brief opening encounter between Kent, Gloucester and his illegitimate son Edmund, we’re there as Lear sets about dividing his kingdom and demanding public declarations of affection from his three daughters. Five minutes and the madness begins.

Jonathan Miller at Lear rehearsal
Jonathan Miller at Lear rehearsal

Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

Jonathan Miller gave his view of Lear in an interview with the Northern Echo:

What’s extraordinary is the strange realism of the behaviour of a person who in fact is an incompetent monarch. In the case of Lear we have someone who, as his daughter says when he goes out of the room, “he has ever but slenderly known himself” and that he was actually a foolish old man and probably a foolish young one. It may well be the fact that many people who inherit monarchy are not in fact qualified to exercise monarchy.

Or, as Dominic Cavendish put it when reviewing the production for the Telegraph, ‘Lear throws his toys out of the pram in fury’:

‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ As he utters these words, Barrie Rutter’s Lear settles himself into his throne with a heave and an expectant air. The tone is indulgent, non-threatening. It’s an odd thing to ask, a non-sequitur almost, but the implication is clear. This is a formality. His three daughters just have to woo him with words of devotion, and their bit of the kingdom is assured.

Only, of course, Cordelia has to speak plain and point out the obvious: children can’t love parents unconditionally and exclusively, or they can’t marry and move on. Having banked on love being returned to him in old-age like a matured investment, Lear throws his toys out of the pram in fury. Everything we see in the play flows from this upheaval. The ‘nothing’ that father alights on favoured daughter is soon revisited on his head: he’s left with less than nothing, not even his wits.

Barry Rutter as King Lear
Barrie Rutter as King Lear

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

An old man losing his mind, demented. This was a production led by two men also advanced in years: Jonathan Miller is 80, while Barrie Rutter is a relatively youthful 68. Rutter gave a superb performance under the masterful direction of Miller. Rutter’s portrayal was matched by excellent performances from the rest of the cast.

With a week to go before we learn who ‘who loses and who wins’ in the election, my attention focussed on these lines, spoken by Lear as he and his devoted daughter Cordelia are led away to prison:

Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

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3 thoughts on “Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

  1. Great. Doubtless you know that Edgar’s closing line:

    “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”

    reprises Cordelia’s stance from earllier in the play. It’s also Cicely Berry’s mantra, advising actors, in her book ‘Voice and the Actor’. It could be everyone’s mantra too, especially Ed Miliband’s!

    1. You’re skimming, Dave! I opened with that verse… Good advice, though, from Berry. I think all the best Shakespeare performances I’ve seen have been ones where the actors spoke the lines as if they were conversing now, not reciting verses from the past.

  2. I saw this production in Bath and was bowled over by it. I also saw a Miller-directed Hamlet at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol some years ago. Both productions displayed a rare attention to the script – Miller and his cast seemed to have really thought about the words and what Shakespeare was trying to achieve. No gimmicks, just great attention – the approach worked well, I thought.

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