King Lear at the Old Vic, dir. Deborah Warner, Friday 28th October 2016
Reviewed by Ronan Hatfull, University of Warwick
During the interval of the Old Vic’s current production of King Lear, which is directed by Deborah Warner and significantly marks two-time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson’s return to the stage after serving as an MP from 1992 to 2015, I had an interesting conversation with a friend also seeing the show that evening. This revolved around the difference between this performance’s utilisation of a stellar name sure to sell seats on reputation alone, and last year’s Hamlet, which similarly relied on the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. It is easy for a theatre to be uninteresting creatively when they sell out the show a year in advance, as proven by that particular production which, for all its lavish spectacle, sumptuous staging and Cumberbatch’s earnest yet miscast Dane, felt hollow and devoid of original ideas.
Thankfully, myself and the friend agreed that, where “Cumberhamlet” failed, Warner’s production eschews the problems of “celebrity Shakespeare” and instead uses its well-known cast which, in addition to Jackson, also features Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks and Rhys Ifans, to present an inventively designed and tonally intriguing interpretation of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy. The most immediately striking aspect of the set design is the projection of each specific Act and Scene on the back of the stage. Whether this was to aid audience understanding or a meta-theatrical gesture I couldn’t decide, but the latter was also suggested by the pre-set before both halves, which had actors freely wandering the stage in character, as though warming up.
Additionally, the white, stark, minimalist set, which was freely moved around by stage hands throughout, suggested at an almost unfinished design that, rather than detracting from the play, reflected the uncontrollable chaos which takes hold after Lear’s exile to the blasted heath. Particularly striking was the transformation of the modernist stage into a sea of black bin bags for the storm, rippling menacingly with white lines and static projected onto them. The relatively simple combination of this projection and the sound of howling wind worked surprisingly to create an authentic depiction of the storm while also acknowledging the artifice of Shakespeare’s theatrical device. It is certainly one of the most original depictions of the heath I’ve seen and worked particularly well when Rhys Ifan’s Fool clambered, terrified, from an opening in the dark canopy of bags.
On the subject of Ifans, his performance as the Fool was not only one of the production’s highlights but representative of what made it an interesting and original interpretation. In short, this was the most most explicitly comic King Lear I’ve ever seen. Many productions neglect the fact that, amidst the savagery of Gloucester’s blinding and the tragedy’s nihilistic conclusion, this can be a very funny play, when the director understands, as Peter Brook did, that by using the principles of Beckettian drama, dark humour can be wrought from Shakespeare’s text. Ifan’s Fool delivered this from the moment he swaggered onstage in a torn Superman onesie and ripped jeans, swigging constantly from any bottle he could find and even drinking a raw egg at one point to help signify the crown-egg metaphor during Act 1 Scene 4. His performance was shot through with considerable pathos, particularly during the same scene when he and Lear shared a tender moment of self-reflection as, bottle and cigarette in hand, he remarked sadly that ‘I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool. / And yet I would not be thee, nuncle’.
If Ifans’s Fool was a man attempting to cover his demons through multiple accents and personas, then Glenda Jackson’s Lear was a triumph in a far more restrained and singular sense. Deborah Warner chose not to change the personal pronouns or edit the text to fit Lear being played by a woman, meaning that Jackson continued to be addressed as ‘King’ and ‘Father’ rather than ‘Queen’ or ‘Mother’. The decision not to alter these can sometimes feel awkward and restrictive for the performer, but in Jackson’s case it played to her strengths enormously. It was evident that she had set out to play the role not as ‘a woman playing Lear’ but to perform it regardless of the trappings or assumptions of gender, meaning her mannerisms and posture felt, rather brilliantly, to be neither definitely masculine or feminine. This made her a very modern Lear in that sense, and was aided by the mixture of weariness and indignation at her daughters’ betrayal. This was not a Lear ready to rage at the heavens but one who appeared more disappointed and disgusted by the behaviour of others. This was particular apt and meta-theatrical when Jackson, the MP of 23 years, delivered the ‘scurvy politician’ line, which elicited both laughter and audible groans from the audience.
Other noteworthy performances across the cast included Celia Imrie’s Goneril, who, closer in age to Lear than normal, felt very much like the dominant, eldest child struggling to get both her own way and out of a dominant parent’s shadow. One of the play’s highlights was her reaction to kissing Edmund (Simon Manyonda) when she turned, clearly titillated, to slyly comment ‘oh, the difference of man and man’, only for her dour husband, Albany (William Chubb) to slope onstage. Chubb’s performance was wonderfully restrained, as was Sargon Yelda’s Kent, whose shared kiss with Cordelia (Morfyyd Clark) made perfect sense in the play’s modern context.
In addition, Karl Johnson’s performance as Gloucester was the perfect combination of comic and tragic, beginning as a bumbling, brassy old ‘geezer’ and gradually transforming into the shattered man who ponders the point of it all with Lear towards the end of the play. Less successful were his two sons, Edmund and Edgar (Harry Melling). Manyonda appeared to have been directed as though he ought to physicalise every line, which felt particularly odd during his ‘stand up for bastards’ soliloquy, which he began with a skipping rope and finished by mooning the audience and thrusting into thin air. Equally odd was Edgar. Melling’s sudden transformation from an indie slacker into Poor Tom’s ravaged tramp felt even more implausible than normal, as did his decision not to reveal his true identity to Gloucester as he guides his father to the cliffs of Dover.
The two young actors not only appeared to be out of their depth but played to their character’s more extreme aspects: Edmund’s villainy and lasciviousness and Edgar’s potential for schizophrenia as Poor Tom. One of King Lear’s most important messages is that, when the old and young fail to understand each other, chaos reigns. This year, YouGov statistics suggested that 75% of people aged 18-24 claimed they voted for Remain in the EU Referendum, while just 39% of those aged 65 and over backed a vote to stay. Many media outlets and commentators portrayed this as infuriating for Britain’s youth, with battle-lines drawn between generations. Evidently, the divide is not so simple, but this production had a unique opportunity to use Shakespeare’s play as a piece of political commentary which not only depicts the division of a kingdom but of two generations, particularly with a former MP in the title role. Unfortunately, partly because the two younger performers failed to gel with the rest of the cast and due to the production’s nondescript modern setting, this failed to materialise.
The Old Vic’s King Lear comes highly recommended for its strong ensemble and many standout performances, particularly from Jackson and Ifans. It also boasts an unexpectedly minimal and avant-garde set design, and bravely attempts to evoke the morbid laughter which Lear can, and should, produce. However, the slightly excessive running time of three hours and forty minutes, coupled with a missed chance to discuss the play’s importance in 2016, meant that an excellent production stopped just short of becoming exceptional.