Sunday, 18 May 2014

King Lear (NT)

Live screening of theatre - the poor man's option (that's me, £50 + travel + food, come orfit!) or is it in some ways actually better than being in the building? Yes, you miss all the chemistry of being under the same roof while the actors are doing it then and there for you. But then if you're at the back of the dress circle wishing you'd brought your binoculars and praying that someone two rows down would stop texting then maybe you're missing out too. Especially when so much of the action is in the eyes ... SRB's staring face in the division scene suggesting he's already a few biscuits short of a full picnic hamper, or Anne Maxwell Martin's orgasmic crumple in the unwatchable bit, to name but two ocular pleasurings.

For me, a production of hits and misses. I liked the approach of showing Lear as bloody impossible and clearly dangerous from the off, the rapid barkthrough of the first big scene, the deep permeating coldness of Edgar and Cornwall. Some sense was made of the loopy Edgar plot and the blank of Albany's character was filled in convincingly. The Stalinesque sculpture of Lear was a good touch and the general sense of a bleak tyranny setting (thanks, Edward Bond by the way) held together. Above all the mad scenes were the clearest I have ever heard, and showed SRB's naturalist clarity at its best. I've never listened so hard to the 'who would scape whipping' scene with Gloucester. The recognition of Kent at the end was oddly more moving than the death of Cordelia. There were some nice Mendes touches ('Tis a good block', 'She cannot deny it').

Misses: I wasn't wowed by the Fool, and the notorious addition to the script to explain his sudden disappearance didn't add much (in any case, there's not much mystery to explain: Cordelia and the Fool were probably played by the same boy, making 'And my poor fool is hang'd' one of the most extraordinary lines in the canon, taking us inside and outside the play world in the same moment; one day I'm going to see a production which gets this, or I'll just have to do it myself). Having rows of non-speaking soldiers is just a rather obvious way of trying to fill in the Olivier stage (what are they actually for in a closed council scene, anyway?). Similarly the storm scene looked like they needed to give the rotating drum an MOT, since - on screen anyway - it served no real theatrical purpose. Stuff like waterboarding is just a theatrical cliché these days. The end was a bit of a mess: Shakespeare gets Edmund and the ugly sisters offstage for a reason, lads! We need that space clear for the ending! Cordelia looked none too convincing with a gun, which anyway worked against her image as the spiritual opposite of her sisters.

And then, I thought, hold on, aren't there things wrong with the play? Would any script editor accept King Lear in its present state? Except as a folk story, on another plane from the warp and woof of real human psychology, the opening scenes make no sense. Lear and Gloucester are in some kind of competition for The Most Stupid Old Man in Britain award, a trait inherited by their beloved: Cordelia's ostentatious sincerity is tiresome, and Edgar bolting off to the heath without even speaking to dad is incredible (as is the jumping off the cliff bit - why not just say who he is? 'Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it' - and how's that going?). And - a question mark which becomes bolder in a production like this with warplanes whizzing around - who's actually in charge of the English army? Cornwall's dead, Albany's in a dither, this lot wouldn't even manage to charter a taxi to the Dover ferry terminal let alone meet an invading an army (and why no re-appearance of France, Mr Shakespeare? Ah, I think I get it. The actor's busy playing Albany!) And Sam Johnson was surely right to find it  flawed. It's not the trite reason that it's too tragic, it's that any aesthetic of checks and balances is offended by the fact that Cordelia's death has no payoff whatsoever: the closing speeches do not add up to any kind of hard-won wisdom and bear no relation to what we have seen (you might think that 'speak what we feel, not what we ought to say' is exactly the wrong moral to draw: that's how all the trouble started, for gawd's sake!). Platitudes anyway (a problem with slavering schoolmaster bardolatry is that people who read nothing but Shakespeare don't realize how many of the ideas are renaissance commonplaces). Anyway, the play is absurdly over-produced and companies should be doing more Massinger, Middleton and Co. and giving Mr Lear a rest for a bit. The blog has spoken!

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