King Lear @ Almeida, London, 2012Tragedy

  • Paul Edmondson

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


King Lear, directed by Michael Attenborough for the Almeida Theatre, 22 September 2012

By Sonia Massia, King’s College London

Having sat through the first few minutes of Attenborough’s production of King Lear at the Almeida, I found myself thinking just how different it looked and sounded from the production of the same play staged by the Belarus Free Theatre at The Globe Theatre a few months earlier. Following the guidelines issued by the Globe to Globe Festival organizers, the Belarusians used only simple props and no setting, and managed to create a stunning piece of physical theatre. Attenborough’s cast, which included Jonathan Pryce in the lead role, was instead constantly surrounded by the sturdy walls of a medieval castle, which remained visible even during the long outdoor scenes in the second half of the play. The soundscapes in these two productions were also very different. The distancing effect of the translation into Belarusian, along with the absence of recorded music or sound effects, turned King Lear into a raw but intense theatrical experience, which seemed perfectly suited to the acting space offered by an open-air amphitheatre like The Globe. The intimate indoor space shared by actors and audience at the Almeida was instead filled by sophisticated light and sound effects and by the beautifully calibrated voices of the cast, who spoke the familiar English text of Shakespeare’s play precisely, clearly, almost reverentially, as an act of worship or collective remembrance of the common values associated with Lear’s journey of emotional discovery. Even more obviously, while the Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear was thoroughly embedded in the context of an international festival, nothing at the Almeida or in the programme signaled that this King Lear had also been advertised as one of the many offerings under the auspices of the World Shakespeare Festival. Directed by the Almeida’s own artistic director since 2002, this Lear was an in-house production through and through.

And yet, as Attenborough’s production progressed, I started to notice interesting similarities with the Belarusian King Lear. The set, for example, was as substantial and imposing as one would expect it to be in a production where the fictive world of the play is realistically evoked. The sturdy brick walls curving around the small stage at the Almeida clearly suggested the gloomy courtyard of a medieval castle. However, they also matched the structure, colour and texture of the theatre’s back walls, thus blurring the distinction between the dramatic fiction and the theatrical trappings underpinning it, as it often happens in performance spaces, like The Globe Theatre, where the stage and the theatre are visible at all times. Even more crucially, it soon became apparent that Pryce’s take on Lear was very similar to Aleh Sidorchik’s portrayal of the king as a violent and abusive autocrat in the Belarusian production. Though seemingly doting and benign, Lear suddenly and unexpectedly kissed Regan (Jenny Jules) on the mouth, after her profession of unconditional filial devotion during the love test at the beginning of the play. The uniformly white audience, who had sat in rapt admiration up to this point, seemed to shudder and to hold their breath in quietly outraged disbelief. Was this kiss a mere slip from the polished, self-confident register that this production had set from the start? Other equally startling details in the stage action that followed suggested otherwise. When, for example, Goneril (Zoe Waites) complained that the loutish behaviour of Lear’s knights made her house seem ‘more like a tavern or a brothel / Than a grac’d palace’, her aggravation seemed justified by the fact that, on entering the stage as if coming straight back from hunting, two of Lear’s knights hanged a dead deer from one of the arched doorways in the castle walls and then proceeded to bleed it, while others harassed one of her female servants. Pryce’s Lear, instantly enraged by his daughter’s suggestion that he should reduce the number of knights in his retinue, first cursed Goneril in what seemed like a particularly vicious and prolonged verbal attack, and then forced a violent kiss on her lips before pushing her away as he stormed off stage. Goneril tried to enlist her husband’s support by delivering her line ‘Do you mark that?’ as a plea, but a visibly older Albany (Richard Hope) refused to acknowledge her as a victim and replied coldly and dispassionately ‘I cannot be so partial, Goneril’. Goneril’s response to Albany’s discovery of her illicit liaison with Edmund in the final scene of the play – ‘the laws are mine, not thine; / Who can arraign me for’t?’ – thus acquired new resonance.

While Attenborough’s portrayal of Goneril and Regan as the victims of a sexually abusive father was consistent and effective throughout, the tension that this reading created in the second half of the play, when Lear normally becomes more sympathetic, seemed to remain ultimately unresolved. If Pryce’s Lear had undoubtedly gained fresh insight and self-awareness by the time he reached Dover, the emphasis that Pryce placed on Lear’s misogyny as he bantered with Gloucester on the heath showed that his character was still affected by the contempt that generally underlies sexual abuse. Pryce linked the smell of mortality, which he graphically tried to wipe off his fingers, to the female sexual genitals, ‘the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding’, which he had also obscenely mimed a couple of lines earlier. This production’s commitment to exploring the roots of Lear’s despotism as a father more than as a king was interestingly foregrounded in the programme: three headings, ‘truth’, ‘gender’, and ‘nature’, introduced a selection of quotations from the play, but only ‘gender’ was glossed by an explanatory note, where the play was described as ‘dominated by power-oriented masculinity’. Though a far cry from Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, this production offered a similarly radical re-reading of Lear’s character, which turned out to be uncannily similar to the sexually abusive Lear portrayed by Aleh Sidorchik in the Belarusian production. However, unlike the latter, where the loss of Shakespeare’s language allowed the company to refocus the play on issues that resonated with their own experience of homelessness at the hands of a despotic regime, Pryce’s Lear struggled to secure the audience’s sympathy as he approached the tragic ending precisely because this production had not presented itself as an overt adaptation and had therefore at least partly failed to manage the audience’s expectations as to what type of production they were going to see.

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Author: Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson