Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s King Lear

Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s <em>King Lear</em>

For the first time, we overcame scepticism and joined a packed house at FACT, our local Picturehouse to watch the RSC production of King Lear streamed live from Stratford. It was a revelation; we were completely blown away by the experience, which was not at all like watching TV but instead felt totally immersive, like being there in the audience and on stage at the same time. I particularly appreciated being able to hear every word spoken and see details of costumes and facial expressions of the actors.

All of which is merely a preamble to praise for the production itself: Anthony Sher was outstanding as Lear, while the entire cast burned just as bright. Directed by Gregory Doran, the staging and costumes were magnificent, making this a truly memorable production of the Shakespeare play I have seen more times than any other. Continue reading “Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s King Lear

Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear

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. Continue reading “Northern accents in Jonathan Miller’s King Lear”

King Lear on a summer evening in Calderstones park

King Lear on a summer evening in Calderstones park
Joseph-Marcell as King Lear
Joseph Marcell as King Lear in the Globe Theatre touring production

The Globe Theatre came to Calderstones Park last night, bringing their touring production of King Lear. On a warm evening, with the rain holding off, five hundred of us saw eight actors and two musicians, perform one of Shakespeare’s best-known stories.  A basic wooden stage had been erected in the garden behind Calderstones Mansion House and as the audience gathered, unfolding chairs and unpacking food and drink, the actors trolled around and chatted to the audience.

For Liverpudlians, the Globe Theatre’s visit was especially significant: for the first time in 30 years, live theatre was back at the Garden Theatre in Calderstones. This was all down to the Reader Organisation that recently took over the Mansion House to develop their International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing which will providing a home for The Reader Organisation and offer educational and literary courses, reading holidays, wellbeing breaks for carers and many more activities.

Lear Calderstones
The audience settles in to watch King Lear in Calderstones Garden Theatre

On a warm summer’s evening when the English weather is kind, what could be better than to sit under the trees and, as darkness falls, watch a great play performed by actors from a great company in a production that was full of energy and offered new insights into the play?  As in Shakespeare’s day, the players had to turn their hand, not only to a bit of acting and singing, but also take turns at performing as musicians and stagehands.  They were also required to take on two or more roles each. So before launching into the play, they gave us a song and told us about where this year’s tour had taken them – around Britain, across Europe to Romania and Turkey, and finally (lucky players!) to St Lucia.

Directed by Bill Buckhurst, this was not only an energetic rendition of the story, but also had a lighter, more comedic touch than usual (so, for example, the gore and horror of the scene where Gloucester is blinded culminated with an eye being thrown into the audience). This made for a very different reading of the play to the one we saw at the Everyman in Capital of Culture year (featuring the late Pete Postlethwaite in the lead role) which emphasised the contemporary relevance of the play’s politics of succession and division.  It was also quite different to the harrowing Donmar production we saw in 2011 at the Lowry in Salford.

Globe 2013 Lear BethanCullinane
BethanCullinane as the Fool with Dickon Tyrell as Kent

There were strong performances all round, but special mention should be made of Joseph Marcell’s fine Lear, played with growing emotional intensity and lacerating sense of loss, Bethan Cullinane who, apart from playing Cordelia, also gave us a lively and entertaining fool, the one person at court who possesses the liberty to tell Lear to his face where he has gone wrong.  Ruth Everett and Shanaya Rafaat were brilliant as the hypocritical, amoral sisters Goneril and Regan – I think, perhaps, the best portrayal of the pair who have no conscience, only appetite. Their performance dripped with villainy – the greedy ambition that leads them to crush all opposition, but especially their unrestrained sexual desire for Edmund, which destroys their alliance and leads them to destroy each other.

Lear West Sussex
The Globe perform Lear in West Sussex

A travelling production obviously needs to be a spare one, but this one showed how basic materials produce powerful effects.  This was seen especially in a spine-tingling storm scene that employed nothing more than a flapping curtain and metal thunder sheets. The doubling-up of actors, although a bit confusing at first, added to the liveliness, particularly in a scene where Edmund, played by Oliver Boot (a bit of a Ralph Fiennes lookalike) dashed around changing hats to appear simultaneously as two characters.

King Lear cast performing in Brighton
The cast of King Lear performing in Brighton

Probably because I had just been writing about Dickens’s exploration of the theme of hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit, I noticed how strongly that same theme emerges in the opening scene, with Lear inviting his daughters to pile on their flattery of him in order to gain a share of his kingdom.  Goneril shows no qualms:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

Off to one side, Cordelia resolves to be honest and true:

What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.

When she speaks she refuses to follow her sisters in their false flattery, saying simply:

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.

Lear: Nothing!

Cordelia: Nothing.

Lear: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth

It’s a wonderful exchange, Pinteresque in its conciseness. Later when Lear, wandering the storm-wracked heath, encounters Poor Tom the beggar my attention was caught by these lines, which also drew a ripple of cynical laughter from the audience.  We were all, no doubt, thinking of more recent behaviour by England’s politicians:

Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none, I say, none; I’ll able ’em:
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal the accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes;
And like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.

Globe2013 Lear JosephMarcell
Joseph Marcell as Lear

In the programme, essays by Michael Dobson, Professor of Shakespeare at Birmingham University, and Neil Rodes, Professor of English Literature and Cultural History at St Andrews University, highlight the importance of the theme of homelessness and vagrancy in the play.

The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That’s something yet: Edgar I nothing am.

When Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, an inmate of Bedlam hospital, Shakespeare was bringing into the play one of the key social and political issues at the time that Lear was written and first performed in the first decade of the 17th century. By then Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) was already an asylum notorious for its appalling conditions and brutal treatment of its patients, some of whom were given licenses to beg outside the hospital.

Dobson writes of the play’s ‘profound interest in vagrancy’:

Shakespeare’s version of the tale of King Lear, a story well-known to Jacobeans is the only [version] in which Lear and Cordelia lose the battle, the only one in which the King goes mad, and the only one in which the king’s moral trajectory through the action hinges on an encounter with what appears to be a mad rural beggar, Edgar in his disguise as Poor Tom. For Shakespeare, half the point of Kin gLear is the salutary, edifying experience undergone by its titular king of becoming a deranged, homeless, lost vagrant himself.

Dobson describes Lear as ‘a literally levelling play’ with ‘no gods, no heavens, no hell, just a disenchanted flat exposed plain on which human beings struggle and die’. At the very core of the play, out shelterless in the rain, Lear expresses this new, egalitarian moral vision in a prayer:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just

For Dobson, ‘this play aspires to speak of, and to, everyone, everywhere’. He adds, interestingly, that among the play’s earliest recorded productions, soon after being performed before King James, was a rendition given illegally by a small company of former artisans who toured the moorland hamlets of Yorkshire in 1609-10.

The cast of King Lear

Introducing the programme notes, Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s Artistic Director, observes that touring productions represent a tradition in English theatre that goes back a long way:

Before the construction of the Rose and the Globe all our dramatic experiences were about companies trucking up to strange towns, and performing plays in inn yards, in churches, in guildhalls, in fairs and at any other number of strange venues under the canopy of the sky. Touring was in Shakespeare’s blood and in the blood of the company of actors he worked with. They had toured before they formed a company at the Globe, and they continued to do so after they were established. In part this was an emergency measure – when the theatres had to close due to plague or the opprobrium of the city fathers, then they could take a show out on the road. But there were also powerful economic reasons – touring made money, and was a good way to recycle work that had succeeded in London.

The Globe resurrected this tradition in summer 2007 after a 400-year break taking a scaled-down, touring production of Romeo and Juliet out from the Globe. They have toured ever since, and the tours have gone from strength to strength.

Brueghel Village Festival
Pieter Brueghel the Younger: Village Festival in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony

Dromgoole’s piece is illustrated by a detail from Village Festival in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, painted in 1632. At the centre of the village festivities, Brueghel has depicted a booth stage – the kind of temporary stage that was dominant in England in Shakespeare’s day.  It was a small rectangular stage mounted on trestles or barrels and backed by a cloth-covered booth which served as a tiring-house (short for ‘attiring house’, where the actors dressed).

Brueghel Village Festival detail

In the centre of the painting, a large crowd has gathered around the stage to watch a play in which a man dressed as a monk kisses a buxom woman, while another man spies upon them from a basket on a colleague’s back. The painting  illustrates a religious festival which would undoubtedly have come as a welcome respite from the monotonous toil of peasant existence. Effigies of Saints Anthony and Hubert are being carried in a procession through the village, but for the most part the spectators’ attention has been diverted elsewhere, gazing instead at the play performed by a group of travelling actors.

See also

Donmar’s King Lear

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

We were over at the Lowry last night for the second helping of first class Shakespeare this month.  A couple of weeks ago we saw the National Theatre’s terrific Hamlet; this time it was the critically acclaimed Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear, with Derek Jacobi in the lead role.

Lear may be one of the greatest of all Shakespeare’s dramas, but in all honesty it is so harrowing, so despairing, so explicit in its cruelty, that it is not a play that you come away from speaking of enjoyment.  It is more like a test of endurance. Nevertheless, this production deserves all the accolades the critics have showered upon it.  It had four and five star reviews when it opened in December at the Donmar Theatre in London and this touring production brought with it the full original cast. Its reputation meant that every seat for every performance was sold weeks ago,  despite it being presented at the Lowry’s huge Lyric Theatre.

So young, my lord, and true.

King Lear explores questions at the core of human existence: love and duty, power and loss, good and evil.  The essence of story is familiar: Lear, late in life, decides to divide his kingdom between his three heirs, his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Goneril and Regan, effusive in their professions of love for their father, gain half a kingdom each while the youngest daughter, Cordelia, is banished as a punishment for her refusal to embellish the truth of her love for her father.

If for I want that glib and oily art,
To speak and purpose not…

Always Shakespeare resonates with the present: I pondered how ‘that glib and oily art’  might be being practised now in places like Tripoli and Damascus.

This production had a different feel to the Everyman version with Pete Postlethwaite in Capital of Culture year.  In Rupert Goold’s production, with the noise of screaming fighter jets, the politics of succession and division were very much to the fore.  For the Donmar, director Michael Grandage brings the personal and psychological centre stage – probably reflecting a more Shakespearian interpretation.

The set, designed by Christopher Oram is a bare box of floor to ceiling slatted planks daubed with whitewashed clumps of plaster.  It’s a simple, wintry space that has to serve as heathland and cliff, court and castle. The storm scene was particularly effective: bright flashes of light seared through gaps in the planks while the storm raged.  Unusually, Lear rails against the storm in a whisper.

The chief effect of the minimalism of the set design is to concentrate attention on the performers, led by Derek Jacobi who, at 72 has, in the eyes of just about every critic, produced the crowning performance of his career.  The rest of the cast are excellent too. Paul Jesson’s Gloucester, Gwilym Lee as Edgar and Alec Newman as Edmund, are all superb.

This was Charles Spencer reviewing the production in The Telegraph:

Michael Grandage’s production proves outstanding, the finest and most searching Lear I have ever seen, and in this small space it often achieves a shattering power. But the director and his tremendous company also see the play steadily and see it whole. They capture the great epic sweep of the tragedy, but they are also alert to the detail in the text. Almost every performance seems fresh-minted and psychologically persuasive. I didn’t spot a single moment of hollow bluster.

Christopher Oram’s characteristically simple design, brilliantly lit by Neil Austin, consists of nothing more than whitewashed planks. There is no attempt to evoke a particular time and place. The play itself is allowed to conjure its own world through the power of Shakespeare’s words and the strength and detail of the performances. The tragedy, normally played like a tremendous dramatic symphony, has here become the theatrical equivalent of a searching piece of chamber music. The result is as enthralling as it is deeply moving.

Derek Jacobi’s Lear is initially a testy, self-indulgent old man with a pink face, silver hair and a touch of camp about him. He actually squirms with pleasure as Goneril and Regan deliver their slick eulogies in his grotesque test of love that sets the play in motion. His incandescent rage when Cordelia attempts to wake him from his complacency by telling the truth is electrifying in its intensity.

Michael Billington in The Guardian wrote:

The miracle of Michael Grandage’s production is that it is fast (under three hours), vivid, clear and, thanks to a performance that reminds us why Derek Jacobi is a great classical actor, overwhelmingly moving.

But it is Jacobi’s Lear that drives the production. And what is truly astonishing is the way he combines Lear’s spiritual trajectory from blind arrogance to impotent wisdom with a sense of the character’s tumultuous contradictions. Even the rubicund features and close-cropped white hair suggest a mix of military autocrat and merry patriarch. And, having entered genially cuddling his adored Cordelia, Jacobi quickly unleashes a monumental fury. That’s in the text. But what strikes one is the disproportionate nature of the rage. When Jacobi threatens Goneril by saying, of her sister Regan, that “with her nails she’ll flay thy wolvish visage”, he pictures the scene with vindictive savagery.

And here he is quite superb in the central mad scenes, taking us inside Lear’s tortured mind without diminishing the king’s residual moments of cruelty. He pursues the beggarly Poor Tom with a rabid curiosity eagerly inquiring “What hast thou been?” yet, imagining Goneril on trial, he spits at her shadow with undisguised hatred. And, even in the shattering encounter with the blinded Gloucester on Dover heath, Jacobi first tempts a fantasy mouse with toasted cheese before delightedly stamping on it.

What also marks out Jacobi’s performance is a sense of life’s circularity. His features, through the alchemy of acting, seem to acquire in the final scenes an infant-like luminosity. And Jacobi pierces all one’s emotional defences as he inquires, with a bewildered innocence, “Am I in France” or binds Cordelia to his breast with the rope that imprisons them both. But, even in death, there is contradiction as Jacobi emits blood-chilling cries on “Howl, howl, howl” before we see his flawed heart, not unlike that of the off-stage Gloucester, “burst smilingly”.

It is a tremendous Lear….