King Lear (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre, 2011Tragedy

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Review of Shakespeare’s King Lear (directed by David Farr for the Royal Shakespeare Company) at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 30 March 2010.

Originally published in Shakespeare, 7.2 (2011), 217-22.

By Kate Rumbold (University of Birmingham)

RSC King Lear 2011

Halfway through a successful three-year project, the Royal Shakespeare Company remains highly committed to the principles of ensemble theatre: its website states, “We believe that dynamic, distinctive theatre is made by working together with trust and mutual respect – that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” David Farr’s King Lear marked the return to Stratford of the ensemble of actors who have worked together since the beginning of 2009. Lear would be followed by three further ensemble productions – Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet, Michael Boyd’s Antony and Cleopatra and Greg Doran’s Morte D’Arthur – and return in repertoire through the summer. True to Boyd’s vision of productive collaboration, one of the production’s strengths lay in the sense of balance and co-operation displayed among its cast. Greg Hicks’ less-than-octogenarian Lear was not the hoary, revered old man who commanded all the emotional attention of the play, but a younger, spiky figure who stalked among the characters, provoking them and eliciting sympathy in equal measure. His skilful work did not overshadow strong performances from fellow actors, notably the Fool (Kathryn Hunter), Goneril (Kelly Hunter) and Regan (Katy Stephens), nor obscure the host of intriguing and nuanced relationships that emerged between these and other characters.

Among the rewards of ensemble theatre are the pleasures of recognition it can offer its audience. Displayed inside the front cover of the Lear programme, welcoming the audience to the production, were photographs of the ensemble’s 44 actors, introduced with the suggestion that “you might recognise some familiar faces”. Associations – and new meanings – can abound as audiences watch relationships established in earlier productions taking on new forms. Farr had previously directed The Winter’s Tale, and, for a returning audience, the final meeting of Hicks’ Lear and Samantha Young’s Cordelia was visually overlaid with the memory of the reunion of their Leontes and Perdita, their tragic ending all the more affecting for the reminder of the reconciliatory possibilities of romance. The tears of Kelly Hunter’s Goneril at Lear’s cruel curse of sterility bore some of the sincere confusion of her rashly rejected Hermione, one of several strong suggestions in the production that her steeliness belied a pained sensitivity about her childlessness. But these emotional echoes of Farr’s Winter’s Tale also served as a reminder of a more ideal casting for some characters in the ensemble. Tunji Kasim, formerly the gentle, sweet-natured Florizel to Young’s Perdita, seemed out of his depth as Edmund: more convincing as a smiling shuttlecock in the struggle between Goneril and Regan than as the engineer of the horrors he occasions in the play.

The industrial setting of Farr’s Lear was far from his book-lined Sicilia and festive, paper-strewn Bohemia. Designer Jon Bausor, lighting designer Jon Clark and music director Keith Clouston collaborated again in this production to quite different effect. Murky shapes could be made out on the darkened stage as the audience took their seats. Hanging lamps hovered over a dusty space, light seeped in from the cracked, factory windows that shielded the musicians’ platform, and a repetitive, percussive boom created a mood of tense anticipation. Indeed, for the numerous viewers who watched a YouTube trailer for the production, that tense anticipation might even have preceded their arrival at the Courtyard. The RSC’s latest attempts to engage new audiences through online marketing have also provided a new medium in which to establish the tone of a production. A short, “teaser” trailer, its content confined to the jangling of bells, the sizzle of static and the rasp of Lear’s breath (Dusthouse King Lear RSC ), and a longer version in which Hicks, atop a remarkably dry hilltop landscape, defies the thunder to “[r]umble thy bellyful; spit, fire; spout, rain” (3.2.14) (Dusthouse King Lear ), pre-empted some of the contradictions of the production in their uneasy fusion of the natural and the electrical; of close-up anguish on a sweeping, filmic scale.

Slumped far upstage – in a placement that anticipated his position at the end of the play – was Edgar. He leaped to his feet as the rest of the company arrived. Cordelia, Goneril and Regan silently took up their places in the darkness on the three sides of the stage closest to the audience, Cordelia kneeling downstage. They waited, unseeing, through the opening, jocular encounter of Kent, Gloucester and Edmund. The play’s subplot, then, was immediately visually entwined with the main narrative – a connection that would be underscored at the end of this first scene, when Edmund arrived on stage to begin his soliloquy before Goneril and Regan had departed, and thus anticipated the destructive triangle these three characters would come to form. A bank of electric lights suddenly flooded the scene. Symmetrically arranged around the central opening of the back wall to greet Lear’s arrival, his retinue were thrown off guard when he appeared instead from one of the runways, barking with laughter. Delighting in wrong-footing his company, he even insisted that his children clamber onto boxes to make their proclamations of daughterly love. From the outset, though, was established a strong sense of an old order being overturned. There was something primitive about the furs in which Lear and his retinue were closely wrapped: these, and the dusty cloth map of England that was unfurled on stage, contrasted with the clean lines of his daughters’ dresses, and, later, more starkly still, with the ascetic dress of the religious women whose chanting he shouted over in Goneril’s home, and with the early twentieth-century military outfits of the figures who criss-crossed the stage and populated the battle (pushing Lear round in a wheelchair as if he was being cared for in a Great War field hospital).

The industrial lighting, its giant scale befitting the RSC’s high production values, was key to this deliberately jarring contrast, and had several evocative uses. The lights fizzed and faltered obligingly as Gloucester looked to the sky and spoke of “[t]hese late eclipses” (1.2.101), switched on and off at Edmund’s behest, and turned inquisitorial at Gloucester’s blinding, humming menacingly over the scene of torture. At the end of the play the largest of these lights inched downwards to hover right over the bodies of Lear and Cordelia, before snapping off with abrupt finality. It was not just their harsh, unforgiving light, but the noise they made, that was so atmospheric: their industrial scale put Lear’s domestic tragedy literally under the spotlight. This was not, though, simply a contrast of old and new, but also a despairing, post-industrial vision of modernity itself in decline. Lear was the first to disrupt the set, kicking his way noisily through the back wall with a boar across his shoulders as he revelled and rebelled under his daughters’ care. The set’s subsequent degeneration recalled the architectural destruction evoked in Trevor Nunn’s McKellen-led Lear in 2007, as well as the crashing down of Leontes’ ceiling-high bookshelves in Farr’s own Winter’s Tale. Girders creaked and slipped during the storm, and the Fool swung crazily in the gaps as he, and Lear below, were suddenly illuminated by flashes of lightning. The storm scene also contained the major technical innovation of the production. As Lear stood alone, a platform big enough only for him emerged from the stage to raise him several feet in the air. Rain fell from above – but only on him, draining away into the platform. Even if this localized precipitation smacked irresistibly of caricatured self pity (the Telegraph‘s Charles Spencer was not alone in being reminded of Travis’s 1999 hit song, “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?”), it also effectively conveyed the sense of a private torment played out in public, before onlookers who could not comprehend it. Outside this downpour, Kent and Poor Tom talked apart, and the Fool went sympathetically to Lear’s aid.

For all this technical display, the production was not slanted by a single interpretive decision, but instead felt full (not least because of its three hours and 20 minutes running time) and rich in thoughtful, textual detail. It incorporated elements of the 1608 quarto text (The History of King Lear) that were excised in the “more obviously theatrical” 1623 folio text (The Tragedy of King Lear) (Taylor), along with new elements that were added in the latter. The most notable inclusion from the excised quarto material was Lear’s mock trial of his daughters, a scene that, in Farr’s production, gave more space to Hicks’ and Hunter’s touchingly comic relationship, and provided further opportunity to puncture Goneril and Regan’s pretensions by having a plant pot and watering can represent them. Of the folio additions included in the performance, the most arresting was the Fool’s pronouncement of Merlin’s prophecy: “[t]hen shall the realm of Albion / Come to great confusion” (3.2.85–86). Delivered in sonorous tones from atop the platform where Lear battled the storm, the prophecy not only gave the tiny figure a visionary perspective over the rest of the play; it also marked the end of the first half of the production. For audiences more typically accustomed to making for the foyer after Gloucester’s blinding, it left that particular horror, and the unravelling of the rest of the play, still hovering ominously at the interval. The tense anticipation of the beginning of the play was, then, very effectively prolonged.

Gloucester’s torture, when it did arrive, was all the more distressing. He (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Kent (Darrell D’Silva) were played as steady, more straightforwardly masculine counterparts to the spindly, peevish Lear. They patiently suffered his worst excesses, and their dignified injury was more affecting as a result – not least when Gloucester was left bewildered on stage as the battle raged offstage and sand poured down from above. Lear himself found a new dignity in his madness, despite the absurd head-dress of flowers and grasses, and dealt alternately brusquely and affectionately with his newfound comrades. Charles Aitken’s strong Edgar matched Lear in his tormented anguish, and earned his final-scene centrality as, surrounded by bodies, he looked towards England’s future.

Katy Stephens played a gloriously vicious Regan. With glittering smiles, she deliberately outstripped Goneril in her father’s affections (“Only she comes too short”, 1.1.72), girlishly jumping down from her box to declare her greater love for Lear. That same, insincere smile would greet Lear at her house in an embrace that quickly turned sour. And at Gloucester’s blinding she seemed to delight in slashing the servant, blood splashing everywhere to the shock of those before her in the front seats. Sumptuously dressed in deep red, she held glamour and horror in close company. Farr thus placed her in a particularly heightened contrast with her older, more mousily dressed sister, whose fading fertility (hinted at in her response to Lear’s curse), and even religious sensibilities (as her backdrop of singing nuns suggested), made her a more feeling counterpoint to her younger sister. Their brilliantly contrasted brutality somewhat overshadowed the quietly determined Cordelia, a winning figure of romance even when armour-clad.

Kathryn Hunter gave a hugely compelling performance as the Fool. Her diminutive stature placed her in even more pronounced physical contrast with Lear’s elder daughters. She appeared suddenly in the midst of Lear and his men, to their delight, and nimbly capered among them. Her warm interactions with Lear – their conversations punctuated with affectionate prodding, tender terms of endearment, and even delighted and genuine hugs – evoked the father and child relationship that is so poignantly failing elsewhere in the play. For all her jovial phallic gestures when among Lear’s retinue, Hunter brought to the role a touching femininity and affection that movingly offset the play’s destructive relationships. Indeed, it was in these beautifully observed interactions between pairs of characters – whether positive, as between Lear and his Fool, between Edgar and the dignified Gloucester, and even in the mistress-servant relationship between Goneril and the wonderfully imperious, even Malvolio-like, Oswald (James Tucker); or negative, as in the painful encounters described above – that the emotional heart of this ensemble production really lay.

Shakespeare (Routledge)

Author: Shakespeare (Routledge)

Shakespeare is the academic journal of the British Shakespeare Association.
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