Tim Crouch has cut the play to 80 minutes and it’s performed on a single set by a cast of nine actors performing ten named characters, so about two thirds of the lines and nearly half the characters have been cut. In one of the most interesting edits the Fool becomes, not a character, but a role adopted first by Edmund and then by Kent. Tim Crouch focuses on the family drama; as he says on the RSC’s website, ‘we go to the heart of two families in crisis, of child against father, sibling against sibling’. But he acknowledges the focus on the family is at the expense of the wider, political dimension; ‘Cordelia doesn’t marry France; there isn’t an army marshalled and there isn’t a civil war.’
The show is played in modern dress and performed on a low rostrum covered in carpet. During the play the carpet is lifted to reveal manhole covers, from which Edgar retrieves his Poor Tom disguise, and removable flooring which is taken out to create Cordelia’s grave. There are Christmas presents at each corner of the stage and strings of fairy lights on three sides which shake and flicker to create the storm on the heath. There is a calendar upstage centre and the actors tear off pages as the action progresses. The auditorium lights stay up throughout the show and the off-stage actors sit on benches between scenes in view of the audience, transforming themselves into their characters when they enter. This simple, poor theatre style has the practical advantage of allowing the show to be staged in school halls and canteens in natural daylight whilst underlining the principle that theatre is transformation; of the performance space, props and the actors themselves. Keeping the off-stage actors onstage also, as one of the actors said in the post-show talk, provides a ready-made audience to set an example to a young audience who may never have seen a play before, let alone Shakespeare.
The action is compressed into the seven days between Christmas Day and News Year’s Eve. King Lear was first performed on Boxing Day so there is a literary precedent as well as a contemporary resonance to playing it at Christmas. I saw it with an audience of excited children out for a pre-Christmas family treat which extended the seasonal atmosphere from the stage to the auditorium.
As the audience enters, the two families are already on stage dressed up for Christmas; Regan, Goneril and Cordelia are in red, green and white party dresses and Gloucester is wearing a silly Christmas jumper, and they play charades while Edmund takes round drinks on a tray dressed in a Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer costume. Lear enters through the auditorium wearing a Christmas cracker paper crown with a hearty ‘Ho, ho, ho, ho’, foreshadowing his later Act 5, scene 3 ‘Howl, howl, howl, howl’, and sits in a gold-plated wheelchair to dispense presents to his three daughters.
Paul Copley’s is an affectionate, fun-loving Lear, generous and demonstrative and, initially at least, willing to give Cordelia the benefit of the doubt and laugh off her apparent ingratitude. His is a tragedy of misunderstanding and miscommunication in a family of good intentions and unintended but damaging slights. The transition from a nasty row in an otherwise affectionate family to Edmund’s downright malice is a sharp gear change, explained here by the subtle putdowns inflicted on Edmund as the drink-server to the rest of the family. Edmund makes us complicit in his deception by inviting an audience member to help him change out of his reindeer costume and later to hit him to fake his injury. Edgar similarly involves us by begging for money (unsuccessfully when I saw it) when he transforms into Poor Tom, both characters drawing the audience into the moral universe of the play.
Does it work? I’d say, for the most part, yes. Lear was a controversial choice for a Young People’s Shakespeare production as Tim Crouch acknowledges; ‘some people may think it’s an inappropriate piece for young audiences, but I don’t think so. This is a story about families, about losing control… it’s about siblings, unfairness.’ I agree that the themes are accessible to young people but, while I think the young audience understood the play by the end it remained, for me at least, a difficult show to love. The oddly unbalanced families are believable and relatable to – what happened Lear’s and Gloucester’s wives? Why haven’t Regan and Goneril got any children? – but I missed the butterfly effect escalation from a domestic misunderstanding to a national catastrophe so, while the focus on the family served the first half beautifully, I, and at least some of the young people sitting near me, struggled to stay fully engaged with the second half.
This is an elegant and thoughtful production with interesting things to say about the play, about families and about the nature of performance but The Courtyard Theatre was not its natural home and it made me wish I could have seen it as intended, at close quarters in a school canteen.