Fell in love with a girl

Galatea, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 26 April 2014

The prologue to Galatea, addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, was turned into a coronation ceremony in which Lyly scholar Leah Scragg was crowned Queen of Lylian scholarship. Some of the boy actors approached her as she sat near the aisle in the rear row of pit seats. One stood on another’s shoulders to place a crown on her head, after which she waved graciously at her subjects.

This was all very fitting for the first performance of an Elizabethan play in the Playhouse.

It was also the last ever performance of Galatea by Edward’s Boys, which rounded off a seminar on John Lyly at Shakespeare’s Globe.

The performance took place in the reconstructed indoor playhouse, but used electric lighting with the chandeliers taken to their highest level. This was partly for safety reasons as the staging at one point involved a pyramid of boys representing a tree.

The basic storyline, two girls disguised as boys fall in love thinking the other to be a girl, resulted in a surprising degree of complexity in its overlapping layers of identity. If Shakespeare took this as inspiration for his own gender-confused plots, then by comparison his look simplified and watered down.

The main weakness with the production was that in order to make the gender confusion look realistic, a decision was made to cast the youngest actors in the two central roles with the result that the most demanding performances were being required of the least experienced and confident of performers. We might call this the epicene paradox.

The difference could be seen in the skill and confidence of the other actors. Playing Diana was a large boy with a mad gaze, who seemed permanently on the verge of ripping someone’s head off, which added  certain tension to every scene she was in. Similarly a confident Cupid ranged the stage with bow and arrow making fun of Diana, by exaggeratedly pronouncing her name as “Dian-ah”.

Taking the lead from standard RSC practice, the apprentices were given Brummie accents, their identity reinforced by the Aston Villa football shirts.

There were bright, jovial and enthusiastic performances by boys who seemed to revel in the absurdity of it all. The conclusion of the play with a rendition of The White Stripes’ Fell in Love with a Girl was therefore entirely fitting.

Some questions remain: principally, did the performance fall into the trap of treating the play comically and thus confirming the ‘old’ view of Lyly as a writer of modish trifles?

The other problem with performing Galatea in ‘original’ period conditions is that it is not possible to recreate the prestige status of boys’ performance.

But there is inherent value in the way such performances offer glimpses into an unfamiliar historical theatre culture.

Absolute beginners

Hamlet, Middle Temple Hall, 19 April 2014 & The Globe, 26 April 2014

Before setting off round the world, the Globe’s touring production of Hamlet played at two very different venues: Middle Temple Hall (tickets £50) and The Globe itself (tickets from £5).

Middle Temple Hall is one of only two extant Shakespearean performance spaces, the other being Hampton Court Palace, so any performance of Shakespeare there is a special event.

The basic touring set was implanted in both spaces: a backcloth hung from a metal framework together with packing cases and planks. At Middle Temple Hall it was performed on a wooden platform. When transferred to the Globe, the outline of this platform was marked on its stage. All of this was good practice for the various conditions they would encounter on their journey.

The performance began with a rousing song about beggars, with the cast accompanying themselves on instruments, which were also used for the incidental music. This was a reminder of how touring companies were often considered little better than beggars unless they could demonstrate noble patronage. This beggars song was also played when the Mousetrap company arrived within the play, further underscoring that connection.

The text drew heavily on the First Quarto (Q1), a short version of Hamlet possibly deriving from a touring version of the play, making its use here another nod to the original touring tradition.

The Q1 borrowings caused Polonius (Rãwiri Paratene) to say that one might “find directions forth”; Claudius (John Dougall) used the word “swoopstake-like” and concluded his meditation on his crimes with “No King on earth is safe, if God’s his foe”. The Gravediggers spoke of the grave as a “long house” and of water as a “parlous devourer” of bodies.

The most extensive Q1 borrowing was an entire speech unique to that version about “warm clowns” and the various ways in which they speak more than is set down for them in a play text. And as if to demonstrate that point the Gravedigger did indeed launch into a non-textual but semi-scripted modern English digression when he first appeared. At Middle Temple Hall, Dickon Tyrrell told a joke about booking a holiday and being asked “Eurostar?” and replying “Well, I’ve played a few seasons on the Globe”. This perhaps approximated to the way that the original clowns in these parts did branch off into their own comic routines.

The battlements of Elsinore were suggested by planks arranged into a V-shape pointing towards the audience. The ground further off where Hamlet first met the Ghost was indicated by the same planks sloping down to the ground from the tops of packing cases.

In another self-referential detail, the travelling players called themselves “Two Planks and a Passion”, which would also have made an apt name for the Globe company.

Despite its basic set, the production managed a coup-de-théâtre during the Mousetrap sequence. After a dumbshow set to a rumba rhythm, a curtain was drawn across the stage from behind which the Claudius and Gertrude (Miranda Foster) changed costumes and emerged as the Player King and Queen to act out their scene. After the repeated references to the remarriage of widows, the curtain was closed once again, only to open moments later to reveal a stony-faced Claudius sitting with Gertrude, the same bench serving sequentially as both Mousetrap stage and Mousetrap audience seating.

But this was followed by an even neater trick; the Player King reclined on his side facing away from the audience as the wicked usurper poured poison in his ear. As the direct parallels with Claudius became very apparent he stormed onto the stage from the front calling for lights. This came as a complete surprise because we had been tricked into thinking John Dougall was still on stage.

In addition to the doubling of their roles, the First Player’s connection with Claudius was also emphasised when the actor recited a speech about the Trojan War, at one point describing how Pyrrhus had tried to strike at Priam, but simply stood “And like a neutral to his will and matter, did nothing.” He spoke that phrase staring fixedly at Hamlet and it was as if Claudius were taunting him with his own inaction.

This Hamlet really did consider that his advice to the players was important. When the Player Queen was on stage, Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) stood just to her side trying in vain to restrain her from sawing the air too much with her hands.

The final scene was notable for two things: it showed Claudius handing the cup he had just poisoned almost absent-mindedly to a servant and Gertrude intercepting it before it had reached safety. Secondly, when Horatio tried to join Hamlet by drinking the dregs of the poison, Hamlet snatched it from him and downed the remainder himself, perhaps in an attempt to ensure there was none left to harm his friend.

In its essential elements the production remained constant across the two venues. But the way the production reacted with these two very dissimilar spaces and their audiences meant that the results were different.

At Middle Temple Hall, Hamlet could not resist directing one of the play’s legal jokes out to the audience where distinguished lawyers in dark suits mingled with the slightly less impressive contingent of Globe diehards, one of whom was wearing a replica football shirt.

“Might this not be the skull of a lawyer?” he quipped with a wry smile full of expectation that this might tickle the toes of the assembled advocates. Not a single titter.

The Globe, however, was a completely different proposition. The touring set seemed a natural fit for the partially covered Southwark stage, and close proximity to a standing audience made for a greater level of interaction.

This reviewer decided to take the opportunity to test the proposition that Hamlet’s “Am I a coward?” soliloquy had been written to provide the actor with an inbuilt comeback to heckling provoked by that supposedly rhetorical question. Shared light and the informality of standing in the yard in front of a thrust stage militate in favour of audience participation.

Naeem Hayat crouched close to the ground on the stage right side of the base of the triangular promontory, as he addressed part of his soliloquy to some groundlings directly in front of him. I had a clear view of him from my position where the promontory joined the main stage on the opposite, stage left side.

He calmly asked “Am I a coward?” and left a slight pause of the kind that rhetorical questions require. Mirroring his behaviour I looked straight ahead and snapped “Yes”. He whipped his head round and fixed his fiery gaze on me.

Pausing long enough to position himself with his face a few inches from mine, he launched into the text’s scripted response “Who calls me villain? etc.” His eyes were a mixture of Hamlet’s fury and the actor’s delight at the challenge. I met his gaze, caring little about the flecks of spit on my glasses and steeling myself against the onslaught with the knowledge that however combative he was now, in a few seconds Hamlet was going to concede that I had a point.

“’Swounds, I should take it…” he admitted and began to recoil, almost taken aback that the tramline of the text required him to back away from his tormenter.

The fact that this exchange began when the actor was already engaged with other groundlings, almost having a conversation with them, underlines how readily the Globe promotes this kind of engagement.

Conclusions

The production felt incredibly fresh, as if a ‘new’ play text had been given to a touring company to see what they could do with it. Stripping the Hamlet monster of the expectations generated by 400 years of tradition was liberating.

The frequent use of Q1 text hinted at the economies of touring versions of plays.

Audiences around the world might be surprised at the rustic simplicity of the production, but they will be getting something profoundly authentic.

Love and madness

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Barbican, 12 April 2014

A bedroom with dark red walls; a bed with red sheets and red duvet cover; television and film posters for works such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries: into this blood-themed world stepped a young woman who lounged on her bed and did normal stuff like play CDs and check her laptop.

As if to reinforce the idea that this Cheek By Jowl production was going to be giving John Ford’s Caroline era play a thoroughly modern makeover, the performance began with a dance routine set to a pumping soundtrack.

The modernity of the setting, the dancing and the apparent ordinariness of the young woman were starkly at odds with the archaic language of the play’s title. Only that title and the dark red colour scheme suggested the murky depths to which the story would descend.

Everything that happened to Annabella would happen in this room, which was firmly established as a normal young woman’s bedroom.

The first scene, in which the Friar (Raphael Sowole) castigated Giovanni (Orlando James) for “the leprosy of lust that rots thy soul” had Giovanni play with Annabella (Eve Ponsonby) on her bed, half attending to the Friar while teasing his sister. The fun the siblings were having created sympathy for them within the world of the play, to the extent that the Friar looked like a mardy spoilsport. In the early scenes of the play Giovanni was always in close proximity to Annabella, which underscored his connection to her.

Many of the play’s subplots and minor characters were expunged to focus attention on the tragic trajectory of the doomed couple.

The bed served as the “above” from which Annabella and Puttana (Nicola Sanderson) observed Giovanni, who instead of wandering the stage below a balcony, here lay reading a book at the side of the bed (1.2). This strange staging made perfect sense if the bed was understood to represent Annabella’s territory on which she could relax, play with her brother, and from which she could observe events in the outside world.

It was significant therefore that the first really sinister turn of events began when Giovanni was with Annabella at the dressing table set far away from her bed, set right at the edge of the performance space stage right. It was here that playfulness was replaced by Giovanni’s unhealthy admiration of his sister’s beauty: she looked at herself in the mirror and her brother described his reaction to her beauty, putting his arms around her to make the point obvious.

When he finally declared his incestuous love for her, he did so offering her a dagger to cut out his heart: “there shalt thou behold a heart in which is writ the truth I speak”.

Annabella looked scared both of the dagger and of her brother. The violent impetuosity of his gesture was an intimidating act of force that made Annabella’s subsequent acquiescence appear the possible result of duress.

Both siblings stripped and made out on her bed and a Chorus of other actors stood in the shadows nearby whispering ominously.

The couple even remained together on the floor during 1.3 while above them their father Florio (David Collings) spoke with Donado (Ryan Ellsworth), the uncle of a suitor for Annabella’s hand.

At the start of act two, Giovanni left Annabella for the first time since the start of the performance.

Puttana examined Annabella as she remarked “what a paradise of joy you have passed under” and fetched a pregnancy test, which would reveal that Annabella was expecting.

Hippolita’s (Ruth Everett) hyperdramatic accusations that Soranzo had wronged her turned to comedy when she began to cry like a child and was comforted by Soranzo’s servant Vasquez (Will Alexander) (2.2).

Vasquez picked her up and cradled her as she wailed. He placed her on the bed and gently massaged her back. Her cries of despair gradually and comically turned into moans of pleasure as she began to enjoy the experience. She deftly positioned herself on top of Vasquez and proceeded to seduce him, eventually promising to marry him if he served her faithfully.

Giovanni used specious reasoning to justify his relationship with Annabella to the Friar (2.5). Its obvious falsity made him a morally compromised figure. But when Annabella brushed off suitor Soranzo’s (Maximilien Seweryn) advances (3.2), with Giovanni watching from the side, it was difficult not to support Annabella’s decision and by implication her involvement with her sibling.

Annabella fell sick and her maid Puttana told Giovanni that she was pregnant (3.3). A Doctor (Peter Moreton) visited and examined her water, while Florio hastened to marry her to Soranzo (3.4), the betrothal going ahead after the Friar had chastened Annabella with visions of divine punishment (3.6).

Meanwhile, Hippolita ordered Vasquez to kill Soranzo and dressed for the wedding banquet (3.8).

At the wedding reception Hippolita wore a face mask, and sang for the guests in a side room behind the main stage, before returning to the main stage (4.1). She asked Vasquez for wine, which he supplied. But he denied the same wine to Soranzo, explaining that he had poisoned the wine to kill Hippolita, despite her intention to marry him. Hippolita proceeded to die with all the noise and spectacle of her boisterous character.

The following scene 4.2 was cut so that 4.1 merged seamlessly with 4.3, which began with Soranzo’s denouncement “Famous whore”. At first these words seemed to be directed at Hippolita, which in view of her failed plot to kill him would seem reasonable. But then Soranzo turned his anger on Annabella. Somehow he had found out about her pregnancy and things were about to turn gruesome.

Soranzo groped at Annabella’s “corrupted, bastard-bearing womb” and then tried to abort the baby by dragging her off into the bathroom and procuring a bent coat hanger to use as a crude surgical instrument. As both were obscured from sight, the only indication of what was happening was Annabella’s screams. Yet again, Annabella’s defence of herself and by implication Giovanni’s incestuous fathering of her child, appeared reasonable compared with Soranzo’s callous desire to kill the unborn child.

Vasquez’s moderating influence made Soranzo calm down and forgive her. But the two men still did not know who the father of the child was. But an opportunity immediately presented itself.

Vasquez got to work on Puttana as she tidied up Annabella’s clothes. He seduced her, tempted her with the services of a male stripper who stood in for the text’s banditti. His mercenary treatment of Puttana showed Vasquez to be someone who was both exploited by others and an exploiter in his own right.

There was a party of sorts with the stripper. The three sang and danced on the bed, all of which was intended to get Puttana to divulge the paternity of Annabella’s child. Puttana got into the swing of things and spilt the beans, half-singing the answer to the key question, revealing that her mistress had been made pregnant “’Twas even no worse than her own brother.” The others recoiled, while she comically carried on dancing. Retribution was swift: the stripper cut out Puttana’s tongue and dragged her off to the bathroom, yet again the location of bloody horror, in order to blind her.

The focus returned to Annabella at the start of 5.1. She sat forlorn at the foot of her bed and bid “pleasures farewell…” not in soliloquy, but with the rest of the cast surrounding her at a distance. The Friar was delighted to hear her repent her relationship with Giovanni.

Soranzo was now in a celebratory mood and organised a birthday bash, sending Vasquez to invite Giovanni (5.2). Vasquez found a still unrepentant Giovanni just after he had heard from Annabella that their secret had been discovered. He was very keen to attend (5.3).

Once at the party, Giovanni sought out Annabella in her bedroom (5.5). They kissed passionately on her bed, but lust turned to violence as Giovanni snapped her neck and carried her away. Instead of the text’s lingering death from a stabbing, with an opportunity to say her farewells, she went out like a light.

The performance entered its final scene with the guests gathered for the party (5.6). The mingling revellers initially obscured Giovanni, but they suddenly parted to reveal him naked from the waist up with his back to the audience. He turned round so that we could see that he was covered in blood and clutching in his hands the heart that he had cut out.

He climbed onto the bed and in a dimly and ominously lit tableau acted out how he had “enjoyed sweet Annabella’s sheets”. The door of the bathroom had been left open and its walls were blood-splattered. There was no further killing, sometimes these repetitive revenge killings can come across as comic in performance, so the focus of the final moments was fixed on Giovanni as Annabella appeared through a rear door, stood behind her wretched brother and reached out to him.

Conclusions

The play was remarkable for the way in which it generated sympathy for at least one of the participants in an incestuous relationship.

But women in the play, like Hippolita and Puttana, were shown to be the victims of deception. With Giovanni characterised as impetuous, self-centred and ultimately callous and murderous, it was possible to see Annabella as a similar dupe, even to the point of not fully knowing herself.

Giovanni’s final act put paid to the lie of their romance: murdering Annabella proved that he did not love her.

 

The Late Innovation

The Malcontent, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 6 April 2014

Background

The Globe established a children’s theatre company at its new candlelit Jacobean theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in order to explore the repertoire of plays written for the boys’ companies of the Shakespearean era.

The Globe Young Players, boys and girls aged between 12 and 16, were chosen by a lengthy process of elimination in which an initial group of around 1000 were whittled down to a final company of 20. They were introduced to the wider world by Dominic Dromgoole at the end of the final 2013 Globe performance on 13 October.

Echoes of boys’ company performance could be heard in another of the Playhouse’s opening season productions, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Although the cast were all adults, lines such as Citizen’s comment “The childer are pretty childer” hinted that the original conditions were not being fully replicated. The Globe Young Players company was therefore a very necessary part of the overall Playhouse project.

Performance

The pre-show saw the actors confidently fill the stage and silently meet the collective gaze of the audience. Both boys and girls wore breeches and white smocks, which was a subtle reminder of the original performance by a single-sex boys’ company.

They launched into an opening song, an arrangement of Walter Raleigh’s On The Life of Man:

What is our life? a play of passion,
Our mirth the musicke of division,
Our mothers wombes the tyring houses be,
When we are drest for this short Comedy,
Heaven the Judicious sharpe spector is,
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse,
Our graves that hide us from the searching Sun,
Are like drawne curtaynes when the play is done,
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Onely we dye in earnest, that’s no Jest.

During this meditation on the connection between life and theatre, the boy actor playing Emilia (Benjamin Clarke) stood forward and was costumed in a woman’s dress. This was another direct echo of early modern all-male performance, serving to highlight its artificiality. The Globe Young Players had boys playing women, and also girls playing male characters, most notably the Fool.

The Prologue (Danish Sajjad) cautioned that “Immodest censure now grows wild” and then pointed back at the cast, identifying them as the personified “Innocence” that was “defiled with too nice-brainèd cunning”, in effect a coded appeal not to judge them too harshly.

And so on with the action of the play, in which the deposed ruler Duke Altofronto (Joseph Marshall) lurked in his own court disguised as the malcontent Malevole, observing the iniquities of the new order and plotting the downfall of the bad guys in the form of the usurper Duke Pietro (Ben Lynn) and sneaky Mendoza (Guy Amos), who in addition to being a Machiavel was also after Altofronto’s wife Maria (Amanda Shodeko).

Watching this children’s company performance set in motion a process of adjustment similar to that which occurs when watching all-male theatre company Propeller.

Audiences are accustomed to seeing children on the stage, and in early modern plays, but exclusively in age-appropriate roles, usually as the children of the main adult characters. So the first few minutes felt disconcerting, with an acute awareness that adult characters were being played by children. But once this initial barrier was overcome, it was possible to buy into the performance completely.

In theatre, everything is unreal and therefore anything is possible. Far from being an insurmountable obstacle to the enjoyment of the play, the children’s performance added an extra layer of pretence that heightened its theatricality.

The character of Malevole exuded a world-weary sarcasm, but was played here by a comparatively young boy. Not surprisingly, and indeed rather gratifyingly, the actor did not have within him an experience of worldly bitterness that could be drawn on to make the portrayal of Malevole utterly convincing.

Some critics noted this as a fault, but it was equally possible that this quite predictable aspect of children’s performance was a facet of the original practice and the deliberate intention behind this mode of performance.

Malevole’s childish insults came across as very childish, in other words ideally suited for delivery by a child. Sequential insults like “… old ox, egregious wittol, broken-bellied coward, rotten mummy” delivered by an adult actor would sound very strange, but the same line in the mouth of a child suddenly became entirely appropriate, with the style of language fitting very neatly with the age of the actor.

This legitimising of youthful playfulness was turned to advantage in 3.2 when Malevole taunted Bilioso (Alexander Clarke): the malcontent stood directly behind Bilioso and spoke over his shoulder, first into one ear and then into the other, bobbing alternately from side to side of Bilioso’s head with each new word or phrase, to wonderfully comic effect.

The cast displayed a great deal of professionalism. At one point a chess piece fell from its board and tumbled down into the pit. It was retrieved in two stages: one of the cast waited until they were not required to speak and stood near to it, gesturing at an audience member to pick it up, then a second actor beckoned to be given it once the play’s action had moved to the other side of the stage.

Perhaps one of the most impressive performances was provided by Guy Amos when his character Mendoza had a soliloquy in 1.5. To be completely alone on the stage and to hold an audience single-handed for an extensive soliloquy without backup from other actors is a daunting prospect, even for experienced adult performers. But the way in which he owned the stage and accompanied his comments on women in general with audacious flirting with a particular woman on the front row of the pit was breathtaking to watch. He succeeded brilliantly.

In the next scene (1.6) Mendoza had a spat with Duke Pietro’s wife, Aurelia (Martha Lily Dean), which culminating in another scene-concluding soliloquy. The text’s initial one-word question “Women?” became in performance an eye-rolling expression of sarcastic disdain.

His subsequent condemnation of “these monsters in nature” brought out the humour of having a child actor behaving in a manner beyond his years. But crucially the actor was also aware of this dichotomy and consequently it was possible to laugh with him and not at him.

One character that we could legitimately laugh at was the bawd Maquerelle, played by one of the older boys (Sam Hird). The ribald comedy inherent in the role was enhanced by the fact that this pantomime dame figure appeared to be one foot higher than the two shorter female characters with whom she habitually appeared, making Maquerelle seem all the more monstrous.

The portrayal of Maquerelle and Emilia by boys highlighted two possible results of this practice: sometimes the boys were so young that the gender swap was not noticeable, but is also possible for the discrepancy to be so noticeable that it became comic.

This production’s use of a girl to play the fool Passerello (Freya Parks) introduced some interesting moments: the line “oh that I had been gelded” was thought-provoking when delivered by a girl; the occasion when she played the lute, brandishing it deliberately phallically demonstrated the opposite concept.

But the children’s performance went far beyond simply playing on the gap between their ages and the age of their characters. The performance had genuinely touching moments.

The first of these was the sight of the young Ferneze (Ed Easton) deeply in love with Aurelia. Then in 3.3, Joseph Marshall’s Malevole heard Mendoza speak of his plans for the disguised Duke’s wife, his delivery the heart-rending line “Do you love Maria?” effectively conveyed the convoluted thoughts of a man who realised that he might lose his wife, but wanted some reassurance that the man stealing Maria from him had at least some genuine affection for her.

There was one point where the sheer cuteness of the children’s company created a real moment of theatrical magic. After the interval there was a scene (3.4) that included the song What Hap Had I to Marry a Shrow which was sung as a round by some of the younger actors. What would have been received as a nasty piece of Elizabethan misogyny if presented by adults, became here a thing of beauty when sung by children.

Continuing the Playhouse’s experimentation with the use of candlelight to produce theatrical effects, the staging of this production had several occasions where the impact of the sequence was enhanced by the use of portable candles.

At the beginning of 4.5 there was a moving sequence as Aurelia was going off to banishment on the orders of the new duke Mendoza. The newly repentant Aurelia, who had cuckolded her husband, realised the error of succumbing to Mendoza because he was interested solely in power and not in her.

She wore a long white dress and held a single candle in her hand, all of which indicated a combination of virtue and vulnerability. The youth of the actor made Aurelia’s situation all the more pitiable, and when she ended her sequence by blowing out her candle, signifying the extinguishing of the light and hope it represented, the effect was very powerful.

The production had other moments at which actors blew out candles at the end of potent speeches, such as when Mendoza had an entire short scene in soliloquy (2.1) after Ferneze entered Aurelia’s room and straight into the trap that Mendoza had set for him. After expounding on his vengeful villainy, he blew out his handheld candle as an atmospheric full stop to the scene.

More generally lighting was used to suggest particularly dark moments. The chandeliers were hoisted up to create sombre twilight as the ambush of Ferneze was prepared. The shutters were opened to let in artificial daylight at the start of act three, reinforcing Pietro’s line “’Tis grown to youth of day; how shall we waste this light?” before his party set off hunting.

The play also contained a reference to candle maintenance, which in the Playhouse felt particularly congruous. In 3.3 Malevole described Mendoza as being “like a pair of snuffers: snibs filth in other men and retains it in himself”.

The painted ceiling of the Playhouse with its figure of the mythological Luna served as a chart at which Maquerelle could point as she commented on how the wives of various tradesman became “sociable” and “tractable” in the right astrological conditions.

Mendoza eventually got his comeuppance. The ever-loyal Maria refused to marry him and at the party to celebrate his installation as Duke, he was contemptuously thrown to the ground and surrounded by the good guys who trained pistols on him. Duke Altofronto threw off his Malevole disguise and revealed his true identity to a chorus of comical surprise. Bilioso, channelling the spirit of Falstaff, claimed to have known that Malevole was in fact the Duke all along. The ending was happy, with even the dispatch of Maquerelle “unto the suburbs” provoking audience mirth.

Conclusions

“You can’t expect children to act in a play like that”, said a grumpy man who left at the interval of one performance. He was, of course, wrong in so many ways. Looking aside from his basic error – the play was written specifically to be performed by children – the company in fact succeeded brilliantly in becoming a coherent and incredibly well-rehearsed team with a high standard of performance. It is easy to quote examples of allegedly professional productions of much poorer quality, in some instances where the cast had not even afforded the audience the courtesy of learning their lines properly.

Performance by children in the adult roles is wondrous strange, and therefore as a stranger we should bid it welcome.

The recreation of this mode of performance in an authentic indoor playhouse is an experiment and consequently audiences should have an open mind about the results. In particular, what might appear at first to be faults could actually be integral features of the genre, and its oddities the deliberately engineered effects that original audiences expected and appreciated.

The Globe Young Players will return in April 2015 to perform Dido, Queen of Carthage. This is excellent news, marred only by the fact that the production run has been halved from The Malcontent’s 12 performances to just six.

Rafe’s Got Talent

The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 1 March 2014

The production announced its comic credentials right at the start by turning the lighting of the playhouse candles into an extensive slapstick routine.

The characters Tim (Dennis Herdman) and George (Dean Nolan) began the performance as stage hands. Tim shouted a cry of command to an unseen backstage colleague to request that a candelabra be lowered; it descended as required and was successfully lit. He then fixed his gaze on another candelabra and shouted once more, but this time a different candelabra behind him was lowered to the floor instead. George discovered this and went to investigate, whereupon the candelabra was raised out of reach. But a short while after, it descended slowly all the way down pinning George to the ground.

Tim turned to speak to George with his back extremely close to a lowered, fully lit candelabra and smoke began to issue from his breeches. After what felt like an age, he eventually whelped with the pain and smothered the incipient fire.

The sconces were also lit by tapers, which involved the stage hands clumsily straddling the balustrades to reach them, with big George sometimes losing his balance and toppling over into the audience.

The Citizen (Phil Daniels), his Wife (Pauline McLynn) and Rafe (Matthew Needham) entered through the pit aisle, dressed like other cast members in period costume (Induction). Wife commented on the decoration of the playhouse and they all took their places on the first row of stage left pit seats . Wife had a programme for The London Merchant consisting of small sheets of paper tied together with string with the play title calligraphied on the cover. She also carried a paper bag containing red grapes.

A sign or “title” was presented announcing the beginning of The London Merchant after which the Prologue (Brendan O’Hea) began to speak.

Citizen stood up and faced towards the rest of the audience as he interrupted, objecting to the staging of yet another play that had “girds at citizens”. He encouraged the rest of the audience to support him, which immediately implicated and involved us in his rebellion against The London Merchant.

The first “joke” came unwittingly when, in a performance taking place about seven weeks after the opening of this new theatre, the Citizen gravely pronounced: “This seven years there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it…”

He looked at the audience, hoping that we would support his request for the company to “present something notably in honour of the commons of the city” and went up onto the stage (rather than already being seated there amongst others, as in the original stage directions). When he proposed that the hero of the story should be a grocer, his Wife stood and suggested: “Let him kill a lion with a pestle” before clambering with some assistance onto the stage via its waist-high front.

Wife suggested that Rafe play the new part and there were cheers for him when he joined them. In a test of his acting abilities, Rafe spoke some lines he remembered from his amateur dramatics, while Wife stood next to him making arm movements that he imitated to add expression to his recitation. Unimpressed by his halting delivery, Jasper (Alex Waldmann) and Luce (Sarah MacRae) of the company shook their heads and walked away in disgust. Citizen offered to pay for all the additional costs of this new production, including the musicians. But he mispronounced shawms as “swarms” creating a malapropism not in the original text.

The text’s reference to the couple sitting on stools was cut as they both eventually went to sit back in their pit seats. This worked to the production’s advantage as in this location they remained firmly rooted in the main body of the audience, which gave added bite to their constant intrusions.

With the new show dubbed The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the prologue was repeated with its musical accompaniment. But at the end the music stopped and the Prologue curtly told Citizen and Wife that they would have to take care of Rafe’s part themselves.

With a modicum of order restored, the play proper began its first scene between the Merchant (John Dougall) and Jasper (Act 1). The initial exposition of Jasper’s thwarted desire to marry the Merchant’s daughter Luce was disrupted by Wife loudly rustling a paper bag, and the actors gave the citizen couple angry looks. In addition to rustling the bag while eating and sharing the grapes with her own party, Wife handed the bag round to those behind her and then crossed the aisle to offer grapes to people on the other side.

Increasingly annoyed and provoked, Jasper directed his line “I cannot STOP IT” with its altered emphasis directed at the citizens.

This distraction continued and affected Luce and Jasper, who cast them angry glances. As if to rub salt on the wound, when Luce made a feeble joke saying that she loved Jasper’s rival for her affection “even as I love an ague or foul weather..”, Wife laughed raucously. Jasper and Luce gave the couple more dirty looks as they exited.

The Merchant appeared with Luce’s suitor Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell), who wore a light-coloured outfit which, together with his effete manner, suggested that he was unsuited to Luce. As Humphrey made his grand entrance, he coolly but bluntly ordered the others trying to exit to “walk round me”. The audience was at liberty to decide whether this self-importance resided in the character of Humphrey or in the actor playing him.

Wife’s comment about Humphrey “didst thou ever see a prettier child?” kept the text’s reference to the children’s company that originally performed the play. But in this production the remark was taken by Humphrey to be flirting and he waved back. This worked in performance because vain Humphrey seemed to relish the attention.

The sequence between Luce and Humphrey was characterised by delicious overacting and Humphrey’s stilted delivery of deliberately awful rhyming couplets, which made their clunkiness a source of comedy. He paused as he announced that he was pulling “a pair of…” from his pocket, rummaging around near his codpiece before finally producing an innocuous “pair of… gloves”.

Luce convinced Humphrey that he had to steal her away in order to marry her. This led into the joke about Humphrey’s horse being “somewhat blind” and his concluding lascivious remark about Luce being “so trim”.

Citizen and Wife announced that they liked Humphrey, while Wife’s comment about stinking tobacco was cut as the characters, like everyone else in the playhouse, were not smoking.

In his first appearance as an actor, Rafe was accompanied by Tim and George. All three wore blue grocers’ aprons, while Tim carried a broom. Tim was visibly unhappy about being recruited to serve as one of Rafe’s apprentices and was thrust out onto the stage by the much keener George. In addition to chivvying Tim along, George would go on to distinguish himself as the more inventive and accomplished performer of the pair.

Rafe read falteringly from a book, but eventually closed it and spoke very eloquently in his own words about the adventure it contained. This showed his critical intelligence, a spark of wit that the process of performance would kindle.

Rafe compared the chivalry of the story to his coarse contemporary world, in which people would be labelled “son of a whore” and “damned bitch”, addressing those terms to audience members. But he checked that the woman he jokingly insulted was okay afterwards.

The sequence became very moving between 1.248-53 when Rafe asked why anyone would be content to sit in a shop all day when they could go off and have adventures. This positioned him as the classic figure of the ordinary guy who gets lucky.

As Rafe made Tim and George into his followers, there was laughter at big George being labelled “little dwarf”. Beginning with Rafe, they all cast off their blue aprons.

Instead of Rafe saying “my elder prentice Tim…”, he said “my elder prentice?” as if asking for a name, to which the actor replied “Tim”. But when Rafe addressed him directly again, he got the name wrong, addressing him as “Tom”. The actor corrected him and followed his correction with “anon”. This change from the original was necessary because in this staging the “apprentices” were not known to Rafe beforehand.

Tim shrugged off Rafe’s hand as he placed it encouragingly on his shoulder. Rafe went to the side of the stage and knelt, a finger placed quizzically near his mouth, to ask Tim how he would enquire about the intents of an errant knight, adopting the stylised manner of a theatre director calling on an actor to improvise in a rehearsal. Tim had a go, but could only stutter out a few uninspired words. Rafe showed him how to do it properly using the flowing and poetic language of chivalry, while Wife and Citizen castigated Tim’s ineptitude. Rafe had demonstrated that he possessed unusually refined improvisational skills.

On the other hand, George got right into the spirit of things. Literally seizing his opportunity, he snatched Tim’s broom and swung it behind his back in a ninja pose to exclaim “Right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle” and then went into the pit to comfort a “distressed damsel” getting her to put her hand to her forehead to signify her distress.

Jasper entered and pushed Rafe aside, stamping his foot forcefully as The London Merchant cast reasserted their control over the stage. Mistress Merrythought (Hannah McPake) shunned Jasper and gave her blessing to her goody-goody son Michael (Giles Cooper).

Wife and Citizen initially agreed that Jasper was a bad character, but later fell out over him: Mistress Merrythought said that Jasper had run away, but Wife contradicted her, explaining that we had seen his master reject him about half an hour ago on this very spot. Citizen accused Wife of being soft and taking Jasper’s side.

All the Merrythoughts apart from Jasper had red wigs. Merrythought (Paul Rider) wore a green doublet/hose outfit that matched the green garments of the other Merrythoughts.

Merrythought gave Jasper his share of the estate and counted out the measly 10 shillings as a rising scale played on a lute with each coin. Merrythought said farewell to Jasper who made to leave, but was called back by his father’s singing. Jasper paused in the doorway posing with his hands on the doorposts before returning to rub Merrythought’s stomach in a circular motion and give him a tankard of drink in a touching display of filial affection. Dismissed once again, Jasper tried to tell his father something but was cut short.

There was a brief interval during which the Boy (Samuel Hargreaves) danced. There were breaks every 30 minutes at end of each act with a longer privy break of 15 minutes between acts 3 and 4. In many cases there was something to see during the interval as the play provided comic interludes during the act breaks.

Humphrey explained that in order to marry Luce, he had to carry her away (Act 2). The candelabras were hoisted up, but at uneven heights with the highest upstage, to represent the gloom of Waltham Forest.

The initial exchanges in the scene between Citizen and Wife were spoken very loudly and over the top of the actors playing the Merchant and Humphrey rather than slotted between them. The actors once again grew extremely irritated with their bad behaviour: the Merchant directed “tell me WHY” at them and shouted the phrase “not here” as a complaint that their jabbering meant that the audience could “NOT HEAR”. Humphrey turned his aside “Help me, oh Muses nine” into a desperate plea for them to stop. Finally the Merchant descended into the pit and snatched the bag of grapes from the couple. At the end of the sequence, Humphrey cried out “My best speech: ruined!” as he exited.

Mistress Merrythought and Michael found themselves in the forest with her jewel casket. They sat as she showed the contents of the box to Michael, leaving a necklace protruding when she closed the lid and put it down.

Perilous

Citizen and Wife called for Rafe to appear. He made his entrance wearing a hobby horse, together with Tim and George. The thunder board was used to strike a chilling note when George said they were in the “perilous Waltham Down”. The trio scared away Mistress Merrythought and Michael, who fled abandoning their jewel casket downstage centre.

Tim was carrying a large backpack containing all the luggage. The sequence contained a running gag in which Rafe repeatedly brandished his sword so close to Tim that he lost his balance and fell backwards.

George praised Rafe again as the “Mirror of knighthood…” Rafe took off his hobby horse and knelt downstage to vow service to the distressed people who had just fled. As he referred to his ancestor Amadis de Gaul and his sword Brionella, George sang an accompaniment echoing those phrases, and picked up on his lines rephrasing them into a theme song about how Rafe would never end “the quest of this fair lady and this forsaken squire, till by his valour he gains their liberty”. Towards the end of the song he shouted at a volume that made Rafe recoil.

Utilising a specifically non-Jacobean special effect, George opened a casket containing the emblematic burning pestle, which glowed brightly within.

The unfortunate Jasper spoke of his despair, accompanying his speech with clumsy miming of its visual imagery: he indicated a circle to illustrate Fortune’s “desperate wheel”, as well as hand gestures for “climb” and “stand”. He pretended not to see the casket but then stared at it, mulling how as an actor to “discover” it. Jasper ended up sitting on the casket in a very unconvincing but very funny spoof of stage convention. Bashing his hand down onto the box on each syllable, he despaired that he was “only rich in misery”.

Jasper threw the 10 shillings pittance his father had given him into the pit. Turning to go, he accidentally-on-purpose kicked the casket, which allowed him to officially discover it. With an expression of mock surprise, he exclaimed: “How, illusion!” The pearls that he referred to were already draped over the edge having been left like that by Mistress Merrythought.

Rafe entered through the Pit on a Morris hobby horse together with his party. Mistress Merrythought explained the loss of their jewel casket. Rafe corrected her use of “forest” to “desert”, expressing a tinge of disappointment that the actress was not getting into the mood of the play he was intent on creating.

When Rafe referred to “the beauty of that face” Mistress Merrythought became visibly taken with him, adjusting her hair coquettishly. She stroked his hobby horse’s head turning “more like a giant than a mortal man” into a suggestive joke. Rafe promised to help and offered a lath sword to Michael, making him a knight.

The candelabras were hoisted up and the shutters were opened to create a safe environment for the big fight scene.

Would-be eloper Humphrey tried to carry Luce, but was not strong enough and had to put her down saying “or, if it please you, walk…” to comic effect.

Jasper entered and fought with his rival Humphrey, kicking him down into the pit. Wife predictably took Humphrey’s side, clutching his head into her bosom enabling her to see the “peppernel in’s head”. During this exchange, Citizen varied his pronunciation so that he said “You’re too bitter, cunny” not “cony” as he pronounced the word on all other occasions.

Citizen asserted himself and demanded that Rafe fight with Jasper. The Boy protested that it would spoil their play, but Citizen threatened to “make your house too hot for you else”.

Rafe, his crew and the Merrythoughts discovered Humphrey and huddled together in fright as they pointed their swords at him with paranoid suspicion. But after Humphrey had complained to Rafe about Jasper stealing his wife, it was the newly arrived Jasper who found himself under attack. Tim confronted Jasper, but he just jabbed his finger at Tim and sent him flying backwards, knocking Rafe and George over.

A big fight ensued between Jasper and Rafe. Jasper bashed Rafe’s head against the frons scenae after which the scrapping pair climbed over the balustrade and out through the stage left Lords Box. They raced round the back of the middle gallery where Jasper beat Rafe’s head against a window and kicked Rafe on the ground, with Rafe retaliating by poking Jasper in the eye. The chase proceeded further, accompanied by the sound of clanking metal as something was knocked over, and some auditorium doorway curtains were ruffled. After a lengthy pause, at the end of which Rafe was summoned, they rushed back in again via the opposite Lords Box.

The fight continued onstage. Tim and George were sent sprawling and hit the Lords Box woodwork, but then recovered and rolled forward at Jasper who repulsed them. George grabbed the magic pestle from its box, but was disarmed by Jasper, who used it to hit Rafe repeatedly over the head. He triumphantly dismissed Rafe mocking his London accent when pronouncing “Golden Pestle” before departing with Luce.

Mistress Merrythought said she was tired, Michael said he was hungry. Demoralised Rafe did not know how to respond until the box was opened to show the glowing pestle within. The sight of this rallied Rafe, who said he would bring the Merrythoughts to the safety of a castle.

There was an excellent set piece joke with Wife explaining how Rafe had comforted her about her missing child by saying “I’ll get you another as good”.

George broke into song to inform Rafe and the others about the hospitality on offer from Tapstero and Chamberlino, dancing and singing that there was “plenty of food”, highkicking at “stretched his buttered hams”. Rafe asked Tim to knock at the gates “with stately lance” which George repeated in song, continuing in his comic choral function. Brendan O’Hea’s Host (his character merged with the Tapster) appeared with a knife under his belt and wearing an ominous eye patch as he leant against the doorway offering hospitality. As he turned to follow them inside, the knife he was holding sinisterly behind his back came into view.

After listening to Humphrey’s terrible clasp her/Jasper end rhymes, the Merchant instructed him to intercept the runaways, before setting off to meet Jasper’s father.

Merrythought explained his philosophy of life with a thought-provoking anecdote about a glum man he had once seen who shortly after had been executed and his head displayed on London Bridge. He sang and dance accompanied by the Boy, as both of them mimed riding horses, feeding them and then dismounting.

The old man was unconcerned that his son had run off with the Merchant’s daughter. Had both his sons been condemned to hang, he would have simply cried “Down, down, down they fall”. He crouched to emphasise this, encouraging the Merchant to do the same. For this slight, the Merchant vowed to kill Jasper.

Another act interval came which replaced the text’s excellent “Rafe and Lucrece” joke with something completely different. The Citizen got the band to play the Globe standard “Cuckolds all a row” instead of “Lachrimae”. Leaves were showered down onto the Boy, who singled out Wife and turned the song lyrics into a derogatory comment about her. The stage crew also took their revenge on Citizen by sweeping the leaves on the stage into a neat pile and then brusquely brushing them onto him in the pit.

Reunited at last, Jasper and Luce had some together time (Act 3). But for some reason Jasper (or rather the actor playing him) detected that Luce (or rather the actress playing her) was overly amorous towards him. Jasper rolled his eyes as she tried to embrace him. He resolved the problem by clasping her so close that her head was forced over his shoulder so that she could not kiss him.

They sang a corny song “What is love” with equally corny movements, facing the audience cheek to cheek as they intoned about love’s “arrow”.

Luce fell asleep improbably fast. Jasper laid her down and ran his fingers clumsily over her face and down onto her chest. In a fine display of bad acting, Jasper pondered the nature of their love and put his foot up clumsily on a ledge in the frons scenae. He decided to test the genuineness of her affection by draw his blade on her in feigned contempt.

Wife completely overreacted as if the threat to Luce were real. She shrieked loudly, calling for the watch. Jasper was irritated by the disturbance and pointed his dagger at her, which shut her up. She withdrew to the aisle and hid her face against the side of the seating block until the sequence was over.

Jasper and Luce were seized on by the Merchant, Humphrey and masked men with torches made of bundled candles. Jasper crawled back onstage and was left behind to rue Luce’s capture. He forgot his lines and the yellow prompt book was thrown onstage from inside the tiring house. After consulting it, he continued at “Oh, me unhappy”. On exiting at the end of the sequence, he patted his hands together in a comically self-important attempt at prompting the audience to applaud him.

Having asked “Is ’a gone, George”, Wife realised it was safe to look up. Citizen hugged and comforted his wife after her shock in a touching moment that humanised them and made them more than simply comic devices.

Rafe and company emerged from the tiring house and the Host sat on a stool sharpening the edge of his sword, evilly running his finger along the keen blade, reminding Rafe that he had to pay the bill. Rafe used elegant chivalric language to try to get a freebie. When the Host threatened to “cap” Rafe, Citizen rushed up on to the stage to protect him and then paid the 12 shillings. The Host was very surprised to receive actual money and perhaps the actor playing him realised that here was an opportunity to cash in.

Wife proudly emphasised that “Rafe has friends…” On hearing that Michael had chilblains, she got up on stage to dispense advice, with incredibly funny insouciance that this was merely the world of the play.

Mistress Merrythought said goodbye to Rafe by snatching a kiss from him, while Michael handed back the sword he had been given.

Rafe asked if there were any further adventures. The Tapster pushed up his eye patch and sent message to the Nick the barber, before launching into an extended description of the monstrous Barbarossa. He sat Rafe on his stool which represented Barbarossa’s “enchanted chair” and mimed combing Rafe’s hair and applying soap to his face, finally holding Rafe’s shield like a mirror to show him the back of his head. Rafe had his own comic moment as he tried to rhyme “soul” with “foul” as the text required.

Mistress Merrythought came on but Citizen told her to go off as she was interrupting the new plot. The Boy complained that they were spoiling the company’s play. A dispute arose over the plot with the Boy attempting to get us to support him by saying “I pray, gentlemen, rule him”. Wife called the Boy back and kissed him long and hard before complaining that he might possibly have worms.

Bellows

As the brave knight approached Barbarossa’s lair, the candelabras were flown up and the thunder board rumbled. Tim puffed smoke in Rafe’s face from his special effect bellows. Rafe grew tired of the smoke and eventually pointed the bellows nozzle aside.

A gong was struck and the battle with Barbarossa began. Brendan O’Hea appeared on stilts wearing a long bloodied smock in a barber’s pole pattern, each hand festooned with cutting implements like an open Swiss penknife. Barbarossa roared and lashed out at Rafe with his bladed hands. Rafe fought back bravely, but Barbarossa snapped off a plank from the tiring house and hit him over the head. The Boy was kicked down into the pit in revenge for previous torments. Tim was flown down on a modern harness and tried to join in. Rafe eventually triumphed by cutting into the monster’s side with his sword, which he then raised in victory only to poke it into Tim. The Barber pleaded for mercy and Rafe poised on the brink of finishing him off, jabbing his sword down towards him several times, before finally showing mercy.

The long sequence in which Barbarossa’s prisoners are released was cut, the comedy deriving instead from Tim calling to be lowered from the ceiling over Citizen and Wife’s dialogue. The defeated Barber was asked to swear on the burning pestle never to do wrong again, but had to be restrained from kissing it.

An interval came at this point, earlier than in the text, a proper “privy break” of 15 minutes. A sign announcing this was handed to Tim who was then hoisted up with it into the heavens. The Boy danced all the while as entertainment.

When the play restarted, Mistress Merrythought returned and this time was allowed to proceed with her scene. She and Michael were back home where they found Merrythought still living it up. He appeared among the audience in the upper gallery and then in the musicians gallery before descending to the stage, accompanied by clone Merrythoughts in long johns, red hair and Green Man-style head adornments.

Wife became annoyed at Merrythought and went up on stage to dress him down. But he ignored this admonition and continued to sing and dance. As he sang “kissed me under the breach” Wife’s face was comically thrust into his backside. Wife returned to her seat and sent Citizen to get some drinks.

Mistress Merrythought’s displeasure at her husband culminated in her swearing “Now a churl’s fart in your teeth”, after which she immediately looked surprised at her own temper. She planned to get Michael a position with the Venturewells. Citizen arrived back with drinks on a tray, including glasses of coloured water for those behind the couple in the pit, a sequence that is placed during the text’s act interval.

Jasper dispatched a letter in connection with his coffin ruse (Act 4). He accompanied his parting soliloquy with some inept mimes, acting out standing fixed, a rolling stone and throwing out an anchor, concluding by thrusting his fist downwards at “men celestial” like a boy band singer.

Citizens asked what Rafe should do next. Wife launched into an extravagant description of the romantic Crakovia scene in which she envisaged Rafe wooing a princess, but ending with the anticlimactic “and then let Rafe… talk with her”. The Boy pointed out that this would be impossible both practically and financially. When the Boy said that it would be unfitting for a king’s daughter to marry a grocer’s apprentice, Citizen looked insulted and the audience audibly anticipated his outraged reaction.

The scene was enacted with its exoticism suggested by having George cool Rafe with a large ostrich feather fan, while Tim appeared up in the musicians gallery dressed as Lady, speaking in a cracked voice. He was under a veil at first, then threw it off to display his bearded face. Each time the Lady asked him a question, Rafe turned to the audience as he answered, which enhanced the heroic posturing of his chivalric replies.

When Rafe saw that ‘she’ was a man, he tried to back out, comically inventing a complaint that she was an adherent of “false traditions”. He also mentioned his true love Susan, which was highly affecting, and gave depth to his character. The cross-dressed Tim got too much into his role and wailed when Rafe passed him over for Susan.

The parting gifts of money were turned into an extensive comic sequence by having Rafe climb half-way up the frons scenae to hand over his small individual donations for services rendered. Tim in turn strained as he leant over the gallery balustrade and reached down to take them. Tim also had some funny extra-textual lines commenting on Rafe’s gifts: “Wish he’d anoint my back”, “It was good butter” and responding to Rafe’s “There’s an English groat” with “Oh, how exotic” and then “last one now” as the sequence drew to a close.

The captured Luce was brought in, held firmly by the neck by the Merchant’s henchman, before being handed over to Humphrey. Mistress Merrythought asked the Merchant to employ her son Michael, but he replied with a fiendishly melodramatic staccato denunciation of the wrongs their family had done him. The letter and coffin procured by Jasper were brought in, together with the tragic announcement that Jasper was dead and contained within.

The playhouse shutters were closed and the candelabras hoisted up, as Luce was left alone with the coffin, lighting herself with a handheld. The actress behind Luce changed her acting style so that it became a very convincing portrayal of her character’s grief, free of her previous hamminess. The mood changed completely to underline the gravity of the moment. Even her lament was sung seriously, which contrasted with the cheesy song she had sung with Jasper.

The sombre and serious mood created by the lengthy sequence in which Luce mourned her dead lover was suddenly and comprehensively trashed when Jasper reared up from the coffin. Having made his surprise entrance, he jumped with both feet clear out of the coffin so that they could kiss properly. Jasper’s hand wandered down to Luce’s bottom, at which point Citizen shouted an admonishing “Oi!” This satisfying kiss reconciled them after she had falsely believed that Jasper had wanted to harm her, and marked movement forward in their story, which afforded dramatic momentum to the underlying play.

To facilitate her escape, Luce hid in the coffin and Merchant had it sent to Merrythought, thinking it still contained Jasper Merrythought. Merrythought appeared and sang paying no heed to the fate of his family. Because he was now at home he wore dirty long johns. The following act interlude was run on continuously from the end of the act.

Wife asked Rafe to dance Morris and he emerged in Morris gear to give a rousing speech about the spirit of London youth. At “Lords and Ladies… disport and play, do kiss…” he encouraged a couple in a Lords Box to kiss, which they did producing a heartfelt ‘ah’ moment. When the selected couple did not comply (as happened on 12 March), Rafe commented “Do kiss… sometimes… upon the grass” working with the text to adapt to that behaviour.

A xylophone playing slow, magical notes, accompanied him from the phrase “And be like them”. As he continued, the rest of the main company began to appear at the tiring house side doors, with Luce popping up on the musicians balcony, all admiring Rafe’s fine emotive performance. This was an indication that the main company were beginning to appreciate his talent. This turning point was necessary because it paved the way for the final scene in which the company were appreciative of the adventure Rafe had experienced, rather than continuing to resent him as an upstart intruder. There followed a short four-minute interval.

Act 5 began with the Boy displaying a specific title “The wedding”. A small dinner table was placed onstage. The Merchant’s preparations for the wedding of Luce and Humphrey were interrupted when the thunder board sounded and the candelabras jiggled up and down as if haunted, all presaging the appearance of Jasper, his face painted white like a ghost. Carrying a handheld candelabra for extra impact, he jumped up onto the dining table in a direct parody of Banquo’s haunting of Macbeth. Jasper intermittently kicked plates and tableware to the ground to punctuate his fearful ghostly embassage: Jasper was indeed dead, Luce had now been spirited away and the Merchant’s only hope was to atone by chasing Humphrey away. Jasper danced with joy at the success of his ruse when the Merchant was not looking and then snapped back into ghost mode with the requisite grimace and gesture when the Merchant turned back again.

Humphrey complained that Luce had gone and, obedient to instructions, the Merchant beat him in the hope of appeasing the ghost. Jasper watched this smugly from the musicians gallery and put out his candles before leaving.

Wife called out to Rafe and instructed him to enact soldiers drilling at Mile End, with gleeful emphasis on the words “kill, kill, kill”. Rafe and his men duly emerged with a St George’s flag and Henry V.

The soldiers marched up and down to the beat of the drum. Rafe instructed a pikeman to charge at him, but the pike simply butted up against Rafe and the pikeman’s hands ran down it without causing any injury. The ribald joke about the stinking hole in Greengoose’s musket fell flat. Rafe said that Greengoose deserved to die for his neglect and the pikeman came forward to offer to do the job but his services were rejected. Rafe’s rousing Henry V-style speech ended with cries of “St George!” Citizen was very impressed with Rafe’s martial prowess.

The coffin was brought to Merrythought and when Jasper sneaked up on him via a side door, he fell against the balustrade in surprise. He half-sang “and where is your true love?” at which Luce was helped out of the coffin. This was followed by a comical new line “and there is your true love”. Jasper rubbed his father’s stomach in reconciliation, requesting that his mother be admitted to the house. Mistress Merrythought and Michael were required to sing a song to be let in, and did so omitting the last few offensive lines.

The Merchant also gained access with a song. Mistress Merrythought and Michael, playing along with the ruse, engaged in mock mourning at Jasper’s supposed death. When he turned away from them, the pair fetched Jasper and Luce. The daughter was introduced to the Merchant first to surprise him.

The Merchant begged forgiveness from Merrythought and was in turn asked to forgive Jasper. He clapped Jasper and Luce’s hands together as they kissed under a shower of confetti, with the Merchant’s “I do, I do” becoming yet another suggestion of a wedding ceremony.

Wife demanded dramatic closure for Rafe in the form of his death. He complied by emerging with a forked arrow through his head. But this comic touch was underscored by a very serious, poignant account of his adventure, punctuated by him pointing at individuals behind him on stage who had played a part in his epic journey.

Rafe fell to the ground at “And now I faint”, but got up again immediately in a spoof of that common theatrical trope. He continued speaking until he fell again at “Farewell…” before rising once more. But at “My pain increaseth” he became seriously ill, leading into a very realistic non-comic death, so that even the apparently comical “fly, fly, my soul, to Grocers’ Hall” became poetic.

He lay dead with open, staring eyes. At this point he was clapped by both Jasper and Luce, who had been the first to walk off during his first recitation on stage at the beginning of the performance. Having gained their approval, his journey from clumsy amateur to consummate professional was now complete. Jasper even helped Rafe to his feet, sealing the bond of respect.

The whole onstage cast grouped together for the final song, rounded off with “Heaven bless the knight” sung by George who was then knighted with the burning pestle by Rafe in recognition of his services. The pestle was left on the stage front as the main cast departed leaving Wife to speak the Epilogue. She invited and received audience applause, after which the entire company gathered on stage for the final curtain calls.

Conclusions

This production proved that, far from being the gloomy preserve of blood-soaked tragedy, the Playhouse can serve as an ideal venue for comedy.

The surprisingly high levels of shared light in the intimate space meant that Citizen and Wife could maintain a close rapport with the audience in a way that would not be possible in a huge barn like the RST or Olivier.

Put another way: we have seen the past and it works.

Putting Rafe’s journey at the heart of the production meant that it provided both anarchic comedy and also a heart-warming story.

The success of the production’s initial run has led to it being scheduled for a revival as the Globe’s 2014/15 Christmas pantomime.

The favourable reception that the play enjoyed makes the infrequency of the play’s performance appear puzzling. Perhaps it just requires the right space.

 

Reasons for Rosalind

As You Like It, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 22 February 2014

The production was the first to offer seat reservation for the Tobacco Factory theatre’s luxurious new benches. This professional, compact seating installation replaced the previous wooden tiered platforms and plastic chairs, freeing enough space to add an extra 5ft to the width of the performance area.

The costumes were vaguely Victorian, and in 1.1 we met downtrodden Orlando (Jack Wharrier), a slightly bland figure compared with Rosalind and Celia, the production’s main focus of attention, as well as white-whiskered Adam (Paul Nicholson) dressed as a formal retainer.

Because of the hard stone floor, the fight between Orlando and Oliver (Matthew Thomas) was mostly done standing up with Orlando grabbing his opponent by the throat and pressing him against the stage pillar. Orlando pointedly emphasised that his father was called Sir Rowland de Boys, an interesting touch that underlined Orlando’s awareness of his own nobility.

Charles Exposition (Peter Basham) was a London-accented thug wrestler. Oliver was a mildly creepy presence, but his soliloquy at the end of the scene conveyed not so much his character’s villainy but rather his confusion at why he hated his brother: this glimmer of Oliver’s virtuous side prepared us for his conversion to goodness towards the end.

Our first view of the two central female characters showed them languishing in forced leisure and discontent. Celia (Daisy May) practised the violin slowly and deliberately with an air of boredom while Rosalind (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) sat and tried to write in a notebook, intermittently shaking her pen to force ink into the nib (1.2). This was a good piece of economical scene and mood setting.

Touchstone (Vic Llewellyn) was a Victorian music hall comedian, while Monsieur le Beau (Vincenzo Pellegrino) was remarkable for being 6ft 5” tall. The text was cut to remove the obtuse legal joke referencing the phrase “by these presents”.

Duke Frederick (Chris Bianchi) wore a formal black uniform and was surrounded by his courtiers, casually brandishing their brandy glasses, as they looked forward to the wrestling as post-dinner entertainment. A mat was laid onto the floor to make the falls safer.

At their first encounter there was no real sign of any spark between Rosalind and Orlando, and this was possibly justified by the strained situation.

The staged fight ended implausibly with Orlando slamming Charles’ head so it struck the ground stunning him. This was weakest part of the performance, and raised the question whether this had been the only way to stage Orlando’s convincing victory.

Rosalind presented Orlando with a necklace and stood close to him until Celia stretched her hand out and encouraged her to leave. Rosalind took Celia’s hand and walked away with her gaze still fixed on Orlando. But Orlando’s dumbstruck expression was a little too immobile and could have been slightly more animated.

Rosalind returned again to speak with Orlando before finally leaving; it was still obvious that she was in love.

The production went with the “shorter was his daughter” variant for reasons of physiological accuracy.

Rosalind and Celia’s discussion about Orlando began with the delightful spectacle of the pair in their nightgowns lying on the floor of their dimly lit shared bedroom, gabbing about Rosalind’s new fancy (1.3).

They teased and slapped each other playfully before a full-on squee when Rosalind referred obliquely to Orlando as her “child’s father”.

The lights went up as Duke Frederick entered the room accompanied by his goons, suggesting that he had turned on the bedroom lights to compound his rude interruption of their intimacy. Rosalind was ordered to leave the court. She protested bravely, but the Duke grabbed her by the hair and dragged her almost to the floor before she could finish speaking.

The pair made their preparations to set off for Arden and Rosalind shouted offstage, labelling the new Duke as one of many “mannish cowards”.

The order of scenes in act two was rearranged.

Firstly, Adam and Orlando fled the court (2.3). This was followed by our first view of Duke Senior (Chris Bianchi again) and his merry men in their long coats in the forest (2.1).

The doubling of the dukes meant that the transition to 2.2 involved a quick change for Chris Bianchi back into the fiendish Duke Frederick. Hisperia (Hannah Lee) appeared and spoke the words that in the text are merely her reported speech.

The refugees arrived in Arden (2.4). Rosalind, wearing in her flat cap and squeezed into a tweed suit by binding her chest, comforted the weary, straggling Celia. She claimed that “britches” (and not “doublet and hose”) “ought to show itself courageous to petticoat”.

They sat on the stage right pillar to watch Silvius (Ben Tolley) tell Corin (Alan Coveney) of his unrequited love for Phebe. Touchstone’s reminiscing about Jane Smile was illustrated with phallic gestures made with his ukulele case. Rosalind arranged to buy Silvius’ farm and the two women departed, leaving Touchstone to carry all their luggage.

Paul Currier’s Jaques was a bespectacled, bookish, ascetic type (2.5). Not satisfied with Amiens’ (Offue Okegbe) repertoire, he finished scribbling a song in his notebook before tearing out the page to hand it to the musician. The other foresters were sat around in a circle and became the target of the “ducdame” remark, rather than the audience.

The foresters were plunged into darkness, while Adam and Orlando were lit at the stage left side, as the young man promised to find food for his elderly companion (2.6).

The foresters’ camp was bare but effective, with heat from a brazier and real food (2.7).

Orlando rushed in threatening them with his sword but was then horribly embarrassed at it in a very English way when he realised they were civilised men.

Jaques’ seven ages speech began light-heartedly, including when he mocked the “childish treble” of the “slippered pantaloon”, but then veered into a moment of severe gravity when Adam was carried in and held as an exemplar of a man “sans everything”. As with most productions, this one demonstrated that the “hour to hour” joke only works in original pronunciation.

As Adam sat and ate, Amiens and the others sang “Blow, blow, thou winter wind”. Jaques was still in a sulk, so the singers directed “this life is most jolly” pointedly at him, in one of the production’s occasional flashes of inspiration.

A quick change swapped over dukes and Oliver appeared from under a coat as the location instantly flipped back to the court for Oliver’s interrogation about his missing brother (3.1).

Illuminated by pale artificial moonlight to bring out the sequence’s Diana references, Orlando pinned his love verse on a stage pillar (3.2).

Debate

The debate between Corin and Touchstone was underscored by comic business. The clown had some country muck on his shoe, which he tried to clean off unsuccessfully. He took off the shoe and also tried to remove one of his stockings, enlisting an audience member to help. He gave the soiled shoe to Corin, who scraped off the muck with a knife that he then used to cut an apple, offering a slice to Touchstone, who understandably refused.

Rosalind read one of the verses written in her honour, which Touchstone subverted with his bawdy song, getting the audience to join in with the “Rosalind” punchline. But he played a mean trick by pausing for the punchline at “Love’s…”, a gap which the trusting audience filled with “Rosalind” prompting Touchstone’s immediate correction. This audience participation worked very well in Tobacco Factory space.

With Corin and Touchstone gone, Rosalind asked Celia who had written the verses in an upbeat, playful mood that prepared us for the squeal that resulting from the revelation of Orlando’s authorship.

The original line referencing Rosalind’s disguise of doublet and hose was rewritten to “What shall I do with these?”, which felt unnecessary. The audience should be able to ‘get’ that doublet and hose equates to male attire.

Fantasising about a clinch with Orlando, Rosalind squeezed the stage pillar that for her represented “Jove’s tree”.

Rosalind and Celia lay prone on ground to spy on Orlando and Jaques, but this limited their ability to respond and to be seen responding. Orlando teased Jaques with the idea that he would see a fool drowned in the brook, and Jaques’ retort “There I shall see mine own figure” was one of indignant surprise at being so characterised.

Rosalind adopted a male voice to ask Orlando “Do you hear, forester?” as he crouched on the ground. But he showed no particular interest in her. She then asked him “what is’t o’clock?” but his answer “there’s no clock in the forest” was similarly dismissive.

This initial resistance meant that Rosalind’s ensuing anecdote about Time was a desperate attempt to engage his interest. Her flailing efforts to make him notice her added an interesting tension to the sequence. But by the end of the anecdote he was on his feet and absorbing what she had to say.

Rosalind began to relish this attention, so that when Orlando commented on her voice being refined, she exuded a distinct pride as she continued to invent her own backstory involving a religious uncle. This growing confidence fed into her jocular laddish dismissiveness of women.

All this time Celia sat on a chair and looked unimpressed. Orlando revealed that he was the author of the love verse, and after saying that “Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much” he was in love with Rosalind, he turned away. Celia immediately started gesturing at Rosalind to get stuck in, with the implication that Rosalind should throw off her disguise and reveal herself. Rosalind looked back at Celia, paused, reflected, and then continued with “Love is merely a madness…” telling Orlando that she proposed curing love “by counsel”.

This provided a neat explanation for Rosalind does not simply bring the story to a close at this point when she has a clear opportunity. The staging here made it plain that Rosalind was fighting to stay in her adopted character. She had worked hard to attract Orlando’s attention and once she had won it, she was paralysed with fear: staying in character as Ganymede was the easier option.

Rosalind was thoroughly caught up in her own game and departed with Orlando to show him the cote. She called back “Come sister, will you go?” to a stunned Celia who was visibly befuddled by the turn of events. At this point the interval came.

At the start of the second half we were introduced to Touchstone’s paramour Audrey (Hannah Lee again) (3.3). The text was altered so that “Doth my simple feature content you?” was met with “Which feature?” creating a bawdy joke. Touchstone made a point of showing us his reversible jacket which was now turned outwards to display bright red, completing his transfer from court to country.

Martext was played by the tall Vincenzo Pellegrino (same actor as Le Beau) with the added comedy of him trying unsuccessfully to pickpocket Touchstone at the end of the scene. Thieving then became the “calling” out of which he refused to be flouted.

Rosalind and Celia sat in their cote, with Rosalind rocking on her chair playing with a paper salt cellar. She diverted herself from her unhappiness at Orlando’s no-show by gleefully recounting how she had met her father, the old Duke, in her disguise.

At Corin’s bidding they both ran out to see Silvius and Phebe (Sophie Whittaker), who appeared from the main entrance immediately afterwards, changing the central performance area from inside the cote to outside (3.5). The friends watched from the edge.

Once Phebe had fallen for Ganymede, Rosalind hinted at how she was “falser than vows made in wine” by caressing her body, implying that something unexpected lurked underneath her binding.

Jaques was sat waiting for Rosalind in the cote when they arrived back, creating a connection with the previous scene – he had arrived there while they were occupied with Silvius and Phebe (4.1). Rosalind played along and sat at the table opposite him, pouring Jaques a drink as she criticised “drunkards”.

Jaques’ parting shot was changed unnecessarily to refer to “riddles” rather than “blank verse”, an alteration that made absolutely no sense. Rosalind followed him out, addressing her “gondola” remark to his back.

Rosalind was very pained at Orlando’s delayed arrival. Again Celia sat on her chair and commented sarcastically on this game by chipping in “but he hath a Rosalind of a better leer than you”. This was a continuation of Celia’s urging of Rosalind to throw off her disguise and get on with the serious business of introducing herself to Orlando.

With her next words, Rosalind seemed to pick up on and respond to Celia’s urgency. Describing herself as being “in a holiday humour and like enough to consent”, she cast a glance back at Celia that indicated that she had got the point and that also asked Celia whether this change of tack were sufficient.

Rosalind sat at the table opposite Orlando. He insisted that he would “kiss before I spoke” and leant across intending to plant one on her. At this, she rose, fended him off and backed away. But she was not above flirting with Orlando. Insisting that she would not think her “honesty ranker than my wit”, she sashayed and accentuated her hips, bringing out the sensual meaning of “wit”.

Rosalind was completely serious that she would have Orlando “Fridays and Saturdays and all”. But Orlando took offence at Rosalind saying “Ay, and twenty such”, so that the following exchange of short sentences was quizzical and terse.

The mock marriage gave her further encouragement and Rosalind became overly enthusiastic when taking Orlando for her husband. Realising she had caused him embarrassment, she withdrew and apologised for getting ahead of herself.

Her air of skittishness was only increased when she laughed like a hyena during her long list of things she would do once they were married.

Celia scoffed loudly when Orlando said that his Rosalind was wise. This was another facet of Celia’s continuing disapproval of Rosalind’s disguise game. In response, Rosalind glanced at Celia, making her next words “Or else she could not have the wit to do this” an assertion of her cleverness and a justification of the long game she was playing.

Orlando had to leave again for another two hours, causing Rosalind serious upset. By 4.1.176 she could not disguise her disappointment and pleaded with him in a whiny voice not to be late back. Orlando picked up on this and drew close, put his hand on the curve of her hip and looked into her eyes, before checking himself and making yet another embarrassed retreat.

Letter

After the brief scene of the deer hunt (4.2), Rosalind read the letter brought by Silvius from Phebe (4.3).

Oliver’s appearance and rehabilitation was pleasingly credible, building on his initial glimmer of decency to make his present conversion to goodness convincing.

Rosalind fainted backwards on seeing the napkin stained with Orlando’s blood and her cap tumbled off. Oliver pulled her upright and she slumped forwards pressing into him with her chest, which although it was strapped down doubtless made an impression.

She stood in her male attire with her woman’s hair uncovered and gestured with her hand behind her back at Celia, who retrieved Rosalind’s cap and placed it in her grasp, enabling her to reposition it as she dismissed her collapse as counterfeiting. Oliver gave subtle signs that he had seen through Rosalind’s disguise.

Touchstone and Audrey bickered about their failed wedding (5.1). Taking advantage of Audrey’s disenchantment, her old fame William (Peter Basham again) boldly walked up to her, undid his fly and introduced himself. Audrey did not seem to object to this attention, and it was left to Touchstone to intervene and separate the pair with his threats.

Oliver explained to Orlando about his sudden affection for Celia (5.2). He left soon after Rosalind turned up and his farewell “and you, fair sister” verged on a knowing taunt.

Orlando’s arm was not bound in a scarf. He told Rosalind that his brother had imparted “greater wonders than that” in a subtle, but not overt, hint that he knew what was going on.

Orlando did not want to look at happiness through his brother’s eyes. Rosalind shook his hand to part, saying that she would weary him no longer “with idle talking”. But she kept hold of his hand as she began to explain her scheme.

The “What it is to love” sequence was pleasant enough, but could have benefited from some music, which the production had provided at other points.

The musical interlude scene (5.3) contained a running gag continuing the theme of Audrey’s disenchantment with Touchstone and dalliance with William. As the song progressed, Audrey danced ever more lasciviously with William until she ended up straddling him. Touchstone’s closing complaints about the “foolish song” formed a muted criticism of her behaviour.

The wedding guests gathered (5.4). Posing yet more problems for Touchstone, Audrey took advantage of his conversation with the Duke to hitch up her dress slowly, casting enticing oeillades at Orlando, until Touchstone noticed and instructed her to bear her body “more seeming”.

There was another attempt at audience participation that unfortunately fell rather flat. Jaques and Touchstone’s repartee about the seven degrees of the lie concluded with a digression on the word “if”. The word was repeated several times and when it was due for another mention, Touchstone turned to me and paused waiting for me to fill in, much as the whole audience had done when he had played with the name “Rosalind”. He stared for a few seconds, while I returned a blank look, and then continued.

Rosalind, now in her wedding dress, was ushered into the assembled company by Hymen (Offue Okegbe). The reunions were followed by the couples kneeling to have wedding bands wrapped around their hands.

The seeming implausibility of Duke Frederick’s conversion and the restoration of Duke Senior to his rightful place provided an opportunity for the old duke to demonstrate some of the virtue that had made him a good ruler.

Duke Senior could have luxuriated in his restoration. But instead his first action was to approach the elderly Adam and help him to his feet telling the others to “forget this new-fall’n dignity”.

After the rustic revelry dancing, Rosalind and Orlando kissed. The entire cast exited except Rosalind who, realising she was being left alone on stage, followed a little way and called after them “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue”, as if complaining at being left to perform it. The text was changed from “If I were a woman” to “As I am a woman” and Rosalind, on this occasion, managed to find a man with a beard that pleased her.

Conclusions

This production did a very good job of suggesting a convincing reason why Rosalind does not abandon her disguise on meeting Orlando in the forest.

Once again Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory has delivered a quality product, with the intimacy of the space, the thoughtful direction and accomplished performances all contributing to its value.

Tobacco Factory Theatre

Tobacco Factory Theatre

 

Downfall

King Lear, Olivier Theatre, 15 February 2014

A blazing sun was projected onto a downstage wall. The moon emerged from nearby clouds, making a slow, relentless progress until it clipped the edge of the solar disc: at the stroke of 7pm the sun was fully eclipsed. This subtle spectacle, an Early Modern countdown clock, created a sense of impending catastrophe and introduced the theme of astrology that would be touched upon later in the play.

A solitary chair faced upstage at the foot of a walkway that extended up the centre aisle as far as row E.

The wall was flown up to reveal three tables arranged in a line across a grey bunker-like room from whose ceiling hung grey metal lampshades (1.1). Director Sam Mendes’ recent movie work invited the comparison with the lair of a Bond villain.

Kent (Stanley Townsend), a large friendly man, spoke with Gloucester (Stephen Boxer), who was smaller and more nervous. Gloucester introduced his son Edmund (Sam Troughton), who in fitting with the Bond set cut a very villainous uptight figure with his formal suit and briefcase.

A large body of dark-uniformed soldiers entered and lined the rear curve of the wall. This armed guard was symptomatic of Lear’s paranoid fear of assassination, of the insecurity that would become the dramatic meat of the story.

The soldiers were followed by the grim-faced couples Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Albany (Richard Clothier), Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Cornwall (Michael Nardone). They sat in their respective pairs, elegantly dressed and coiffured, while Cordelia (Olivia Vinall), in a plain dress and with slightly unkempt hair, was positioned at a distance from them on the stage left side. A microphone was placed centrally on each table.

Lear (Simon Russell Beale) wore a black uniform similar to that of his guard, who clicked to attention as he entered. He was short and rotund, and walked leaning forward to indicate a stiffness of back.

The king walked round the end of the table and barked out instructions to Gloucester to attend to France and Burgundy. Lear sat down on the chair, the guard responding by standing at ease. He spoke into the microphone which amplified his voice on stage.

Attendants holding bound maps stood behind the three intended beneficiaries of Lear’s living will. The maps were brandished and held forth when Lear mentioned the division of the kingdom.

Goneril was invited to speak and her husband pushed the microphone across so that she could talk into it. She rose and spoke nervously of her love for Lear, who approached and walked behind her, applauding her as he returned to his seat. On Lear’s cue an attendant placed a bound map in front of her and Albany to show them their lands. Cordelia spoke in spotlight facing the audience. Cornwall pushed the microphone across for Regan, who went one better than Goneril by emerging from behind the huge table to sit on daddy’s lap and kiss him, which he seemed to enjoy. He clapped his chubby little hands together and slapped Regan on the bottom as she turned to go back to her seat.

Cordelia was sat by herself next to a spare chair, which emphasised her isolation and that she had no husband to fight alongside her. The staging emphasised that she was the unmarried freak. The microphone nearest to her was placed centrally between the two chairs and she had to move it herself in order to use it, unlike her sisters whose husbands had performed that task for them. This again subtly pointed to her difference and emphasised that nothing had been done to accommodate her.

She stood to declare her “nothing.” Lear rose astounded and approached her before angrily disclaiming his paternal care.

After Kent’s first intervention Lear shouted at him to “come not between the dragon and his wrath” as he furiously overturned two of the large tables. These were large, heavy tables and slammed loudly on impact with the floor.

Far from being near death, this Lear was still furiously energetic, his present mania foreshadowing future fatal violence. We suddenly understood why the other characters had appeared so apprehensive at the prospect of meeting Lear. Viewed in the light of the king’s intimidating temperament, Cordelia’s decision to confront him appeared all the braver.

The Fool (Adrian Scarborough), who had been sitting on the walkway behind Lear all this time, now took Cordelia away and comforted her. This was also something he did subsequently to Lear, making him impartial in his affections.

Kent pleaded with Lear to change his mind but the king grasped the “recreant” and tore off his medal.

Cordelia’s two suitors Burgundy (Paapa Essiedu) and France (Ross Waiton) still had to be asked whether they wanted her. With Burgundy undecided, Lear behaved like a farmer who had taken livestock to market: with a cry of “up!” he goaded Cordelia to stand on a chair as he offered her to France at a reduced rate. She stared back at Lear with a mixture of disbelief and defiance before contradicting his assassination of her character. But Lear simply told her: “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.”

Lear sat and clapped Burgundy’s decision to abandon her, but when France indicated his affections by moving across to take Cordelia’s hand, the king rose up and broke through the pair, splitting them as he railed that he had “no such daughter”.

Cordelia said goodbye to Goneril and Regan, who continued after her departure with their conspiratorial cattiness. Goneril’s remark that “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash” was an analysis that would be developed later.

The wall was flown down to represent Gloucester’s study, complete with a desk amongst whose clutter was an armillary sphere (1.2). Edmund sat on a couch with a letter which he pocketed hastily when his bespectacled father entered. Gloucester fell for the fake letter ruse and, having forced Edmund to hand it over by grabbing him by the throat, believed that Edgar was planning to kill him. The references to eclipses linked to the initial eclipse projection and also to the desk sphere. Gloucester consulted a book to read off the list of phenomena associated with such eclipses. Edmund mocked belief in astrology, mimicking one its acolytes in a vacuous uptalking accent.

Edgar (Tom Brooke) appeared in a plain cardigan smoking a cigar and holding a bottle of wine, which he poured into a glass. His dowdy appearance was analogous to that of Cordelia: neither were power-dressing for court; on the contrary, both were clothed solely to please themselves. This positioned them outside the power games of the court but also suggested their vulnerability to becoming victims of its machinations. By contrast Edmund was very much the smartly-dressed aspirational apparatchik. He convinced Edgar that he should hide from his father’s wrath.

The wall was flown up towards the end of Edmund’s final flourish to reveal Goneril and Oswald besides an elegant dining table set with plates and stemmed wine glasses (1.3). From offstage came the raucous sound of Lear’s men chanting “oggy oggy oggy”, which was followed by a pause and then Oswald’s comically understated “I hear him”. The impending arrival of Lear’s hordes prompted them to clear the delicate crockery and glassware from the table.

The banished Kent appeared on the walkway. He spoke in an Irish accent, wore ragged clothes and had shaved his head bald, which he stroked as he said he had “razed my likeness” (1.4). Lear and his soldiers entered and threw a huge dead stag onto the dinner table. Kent approached and joined them before getting the soldiers to sing a rude song about the King of France.

“The King of France is a mongrel bitch. He’s got blue balls, crabs and a seven year itch. The King of France is a jumped up frog. I fried his balls to feed my dog.”

Lear sat at a small table on which stood a brandy bottle and a pill container: given his condition, these pills might have been to prevent his violent outbursts. He noticed Kent and asked who he was. During his vague introduction, Kent added a comic touch by holding up the stag’s head on the table to emphasise make it say “eat no fish”. But despite this good humour, Lear’s guard still drew a gun on him as he approached. This was another reminder of the king’s paranoia. The disguised Kent did not mention his age.

Oswald (Simon Manyonda) entered and was wolf-whistled by the troops. He served Lear his dinner, consisting of an insultingly cheap burger, and walked away briskly. Lear called Oswald back and during the ensuing argument Kent tripped him before pushing Oswald bodily out of the dining hall with the rest of the squad moving aggressively to back him up. This solidarity demonstrated that Kent was now part of the pack that surrounded Lear. The king offered Kent “earnest of thy service” in the form of a swig from his brandy bottle.

The Fool was cheered by the men when he made an attention-grabbing entrance down the centre with a shopping trolley into which he had stuffed his ukulele. A hat with feathers served as his coxcomb. The text was altered so that the Fool referred to “the Lady Bitch” rather than “Brach”.

He laid his palms flat and read his speech from an invisible book. He asked Lear “Can you make use of nothing, nuncle?” and handed him the phantom volume in a neat visual gag about nothingness. The joke about an egg concealing two crowns fell deliberately and embarrassingly flat.

There were moments during this sequence when Lear stared out towards the audience as if possessed by troubled thoughts, hinting that the Fool’s jibes about Lear’s foolishness had struck home and explaining the confessional nature of his subsequent admission to the Fool that he had done Cordelia wrong.

Disorder

Goneril appeared and was also wolf-whistled by Lear’s men, behaviour that was understood to be typical of their disorder and of her poor treatment. Just as in the first scene, Goneril again looked tense and nervous: we would soon discover why.

The Fool sat at Lear’s table to eat, said he would be quiet, then deliberately spoke “That’s a shelled peascod” to interrupt Goneril, making her initial reference to the “all-licensed fool” very apt.

Stung by Goneril’s complaints about his followers’ behaviour and her request to “disquantity your train”, Lear walked around with an air of indignation, still with his stiff-backed stoop.

Lear’s anger with Goneril increased until he stood close to her and launched into his vituperative “sterility” speech. Goneril twitched as she boiled under the surface, her fury battling with her fear. After extensive provocation, culminating in Lear describing her as a “thankless child”, she lost her self-control and released what was probably years of frustration. She snapped and slapped him, a microsecond later recoiling and shaking in fear of his retribution. This sequence was a very interesting depiction of Goneril being pushed to her limit, but still scared of Lear, the trauma of her internal struggle playing out across her quaking body.

Lear cursed some more about the reduction in his train until he set off to visit Regan. Goneril sent Oswald with a letter for Regan explaining the latest developments.

The soldiers that accompanied Lear marched across the stage front and some of them deserted and peeled off to escape up the aisle walkway (1.5). This suggested that not only was Lear’s train being reduced but that he was also losing the confidence of his men.

Lear and the Fool paused on their march. The Fool sensed the king’s need for encouragement and jollied him along while nervously avoiding eye contact. Lear sat and scratched his legs and knees staring into space. The sequence showed not a cosy bond of intimate friendship but a state of tension. The Fool’s jokes were an attempt to get through to Lear, but he knew he was failing in this and was painfully aware that Lear was deeply troubled.

The king invoked “sweet heaven” to “Keep me in temper”, his hands gesturing downwards to indicate the repression of something bubbling up: viewed in retrospect this looked not so much like a general wish not to become insane but more like fear of relapse into the kind of insane violence which we would come to realise had been a longstanding feature of his character.

Curan (Daniel Millar) brought food to Edmund in his room, and he was very happy to hear from Curan that Cornwall was on his way (2.1). But the food was then offered to Edgar who, we discovered, was hiding behind the bed. Edmund urged him to flee, warning him about the impending arrival of Cornwall and Regan.

Edgar ran off the walkway, while Edmund decided to inflict a knife would on himself. He braced himself with the knife poised to make its incision, but then relented, turning his comment that he had seen drunk men do more “in sport” look like a cowardly delaying tactic. But he summoned his courage, and once he had cut his arm, he was ready to show the wound with comic self-pity to Gloucester.

The sound of Cornwall and Regan’s car was heard and soon the couple were in the room. Edmund immediately caught her attention and she began eyeing him up. She noticed his wounded forearm and tied one of her outfit’s lacy accessories round it. True to her character, she also flirted with Oswald.

Cornwall made a more dispassionate assessment of the situation. As he spoke with Edmund, he pulled down the lacy bandage and scrutinised the wound, giving Edmund a blank look suggesting that he suspected that the wound was self-inflicted. This made Cornwall’s enthusiasm to recruit him a recognition that Edmund had a similar thuggish cunning to his own.

The wall was flown up to reveal a courtyard dominated by a statue of Lear, depicted as a tall upright man quite unlike the stooped homunculus we had seen (2.2). The statue was either a depiction of him when much younger or a ridiculously flattering portrait.

Kent sat at the foot of the plinth and argued with the arriving Oswald. The confusing references to “Lipsbury pinfold” and suchlike were cut, in line with the production’s excision of opaque language.

Kent fought with Oswald, slapped him and then picked him up as if ready to cast him down. But he was interrupted by the household and its guests. He pugnaciously took on all comers leaving Cornwall with no choice but to restrain him.

Cornwall took off his own belt and placed it around Kent’s neck to lead him back to the statue. Regan took hold of this impromptu leash and placed her heel up near Kent’s chest. This provided a neat justification for Kent’s “if I were your father’s dog you should not use me so”. He was placed in the stocks, which consisted of light chains: one set round his feet, another on his wrists, which were linked by a connecting chain. Kent, now reverting to his normal accent, took comfort in his imprisonment by reading the letter from Cordelia.

The revolve took the statue and Kent off to one side as Edgar entered stage left announcing that he would disguise himself and hide. He mentioned that “the country gives me proof and precedent” and went off to join a shadowy line of poor, clothed beggars facing towards us from upstage (2.3). He provided no protracted description of his disguise, so that this sequence became more of a social and political comment on the effect of Lear’s dictatorship. Because this was a modern dress production, the prospect of an ancient form of vagabondage appeared all the more unjust.

The revolve brought back Kent again at the foot of the statue where Lear soon discovered him chained up (2.4). Lear was bug eyed in disbelief and suffered a bout of “hysterica passio”, retrieving his bottle of pills and holding it behind his back as he fretted. Kent asked the Fool about Lear’s small train and the Fool sat next to him and pointed at the statue of Lear to explain that he should not follow “him that’s stinking”. He sung his song accompanying himself on the ukulele.

Lear was still furious at not being able to speak with Cornwall or Regan. When they both eventually appeared, Lear was obviously highly relieved to be with Regan in whom he now placed all his hopes. So when Regan used her girly voice to persuade her father to return to Goneril and defended her sister, the blow was crushing.

Albany and Goneril made their entrance down the walkway with Goneril supportively taking Regan by the hand, who continued to urge Lear to return to Goneril.

Lear angrily separated their hands and Goneril’s curt comment “At your choice sir” really enraged him. He turned on Goneril and menaced “do not make me mad”, which made her nervous and twitchy as we had seen her previously. Understandably Goneril edged away from Lear, but he tried to mollify her, saying “I will not trouble thee, my child”.

Goneril was gladdened by this apparent change of heart and tentatively moved towards her father, raising her hand slightly from her side, as if wanting to seal this apparent reconciliation with physical contact. But these hopes were immediately dashed by his vituperative description of her as a “boil” and a “carbuncle”. With some of his fury abated by this outburst, he turned from her saying “But I’ll not chide thee”.

Regan’s triumphantly catty deliver of “And in good time you gave it” was consistent with her slightly bitchy, flirty character. Lear approached Regan and handled her thin top “which scarcely keeps thee warm”.

Lear sat on the statue plinth as he vowed to wreak his revenges on his daughters. But his faltering on their precise nature looked weak and pathetic, and the sisters exchanged knowing looks as if confirming their previous assessment of him as a waning force.

Lear departed to the sound of the approaching storm.

As Kent dispatched the Knight to Dover to report to Cordelia’s forces on Lear’s predicament, Lear and the Fool entered and walked up a stage ramp that gradually rose and revolved until they found themselves at its summit several metres above the stage, facing out towards the audience (3.1).

Lear stood to face down the storm with the Fool crouched at his side clinging to his leg (3.2). No wind or rain effects were deployed, making Lear’s words clearly audible, but the long drop beneath them introduced a real sense of peril more acute than any simulation of meteorological conditions. The storm was imagined rather than recreated.

The ramp lowered and revolved as they descended again to be met by Kent who offered to take Lear to a nearby hovel.

In a very touching moment, the Fool sang “The wind and the rain” with the tender affection of a lullaby and embraced Lear comfortingly. This prefigured Lear’s subsequent comforting of Gloucester. The Fool delivered his prophecy before joining the others who had gone off stage right to the hovel.

Outside in the rain Gloucester told Edmund about the letter relating to the invasion in support of Lear (3.3). As they embraced, crafty Edmund picked Gloucester’s pocket for the keys to the closet in which the letter was locked and delighted in telling us that he would leak the intelligence to Cornwall.

The group approached the hovel represented by a trap door (3.4). Lear fretted about his daughters but summarily dismissed the idea of continuing to dwell on them: “That way madness lies” was rushed over and not dwelt on.

Lear took off his boots and coat pledging “to feel what wretches feel”. The Fool cried as Edgar appeared from out of the hovel completely naked and splattered in mud. He had a blanket in his hand, but does not wrap it round himself for quite some time. He looked down at his genitals and, reflecting on their condition, commented “Poor Tom’s a cold”. He eventually talked with Lear downstage explaining his story with the blanket now wrapped around his groin.

A great sequence followed in which Lear stood without his boots and jacket looking at Edgar as he turned slowly downstage, his vacant gaze following an imaginary horse as he beckoned “cessez” to it. This marked the first of many subsequent moments of post-storm calmness characterised by a beautiful, serene bleakness.

Full of admiration for this “unaccommodated man” Lear took off his clothes to stand in just his pants and vest. The king continued to insist on talking with Edgar until ushered away.

Letter

Back inside the house, Edmund insinuated himself with Cornwall, having revealed his father’s letter (3.5).

Gloucester brought them to an outhouse full of household fittings including a bath tub, toilet bowl and a table on which stood a tea urn (3.6).

Lear set about putting his daughters on trial in a mock court. The toilet was positioned before them to represent Goneril, the tea urn stood in for Regan, and the bath was dragged to the centre as a bench for the magistrates. The Fool sat on the urn and pretended to be Regan by miming smoking and jiggling around. The text was altered to reference Goneril slapping Lear so that he said that she had “hit the poor King her father” and not the original text’s “kicked”.

We had seen Lear’s earlier fury. We had seen his medication. We had seen how others, particularly Goneril, were scared of him. We soon arrived at the destination to which these things had signposted us.

Lear suddenly broke off from his arraignment and turned on the Fool screaming at him “False justicer, why hast thou let her escape?” He thwacked him backwards into the bath and then continued hitting him with a short piece of pipe. Given the jocular nature of the mock trial, the frantic rain of blows looked like a joke.

But then the king dropped the bloodstained pipe at the side, the Fool lay silent and unmoving with his feet dangling out of the bath, and the shocking truth became to sink in. Anyone who knew the play would have found this extra-textual murder particularly stunning.

Lear rambled about his little dogs and about Regan until Kent took him aside and put him to bed. Lear muttered about “Supper i’the morning” after which the Fool’s foot twitched as he briefly revived and groaned “And I’ll go to bed at noon” before falling limp, presumably dead.

Gloucester came to warn them of the death plot against the king. Lear was roused and escorted out. As he made his way towards the door, he glanced down into the bath and shrieked as he saw the dead and badly beaten body of the Fool. The shock indicated that Lear had no recollection of what he had done, which was symptomatic of a severe mental collapse, possibly a recurrence of the madness from which he had asked heaven to protect him in 1.5.

Edgar was left alone to comment on the impact of seeing “our betters… bearing our woes”. As he spoke the revolve turned to reveal the set for the next scene already full with its characters ready for the off.

The location changed to a wine cellar lined with racks of bottles (3.7). Goneril and Edmund left Regan and Cornwall to deal with the captured Gloucester, who was brought in as their prisoner. Regan was cattily unpleasant to the old man. He was tied to a chair, hooded, then leant back in the chair and waterboarded to make him answer Cornwall’s questions about the French-led invasion.

His hood was torn off after he had finished answering. With Gloucester still tied to the chair, Cornwall slowly unscrewed a corkscrew from a wine bottle and brandished it, creating a frisson of horror for anyone familiar with this scene.

The corkscrew was then driven into one of Gloucester’s eyes. The staging had a kind of cinematic realism uncommon in the theatre, where the artifice of this moment, with its lychees and black paint, is often apparent and makes it comparatively safe to watch. Here, however, one’s instinct was to avert one’s gaze.

Regan was ecstatically happy at this, prompting the suspicion that she was as insane as Lear. Clearly Regan’s reaction here and her father’s recent display of psychotic violence were of a similar nature.

The Servant (Jonathan Dryden-Taylor) siding with Gloucester wounded Cornwall just by walking up to him and jabbing him in the stomach with a blade, upon which Regan flew at him in fury and stabbed him in the back with her own dagger. Cornwall took out Gloucester’s other eye with the corkscrew. His venomous “Where is thy lustre now?” was aimed at Gloucester and not addressed, as often, to his eyeball.

Cornwall sat and began to bleed profusely. His injury had not been obvious at first, but now Regan escorted him way. This left the remaining servants to decide how to help Gloucester, who, abandoned by the others, struggled to his feet and groped in his newly-inflicted blindness to find the door, harking back to Regan’s spiteful admonition that he should “smell his way to Dover”. This pitiful tableau led into the interval.

At the start of the second half, Edgar sat outside the door of the house begging from passers-by and then caught sight of the Old Man (Colin Haigh) escorting Gloucester (4.1). Edgar reintroduced himself as Poor Tom, but the long list of fiends was cut in keeping with the modernising of the play’s world. Father and disguised son set off for Dover.

The wall slowly rose to reveal Edmund in a clinch with Goneril, whose blouse was unbuttoned and skirt unzipped to show more of her legs (4.2). The slow pace of the reveal was deliberately designed to provide a teasingly brief glimpse of Edmund gripping his hands around Goneril’s neck as if choking her, before moving his hands into a more natural embrace. This hinted that the history of violence in the family had manifested itself in Goneril as a taste for erotic asphyxiation.

Goneril gave Edmund a necklace before he departed and, indicating that playtime was over, zipped her skirt back down as Albany entered. She told him that she was worth the whistling in reference back to her recent satisfying encounter with Edmund.

Albany confronted Goneril with her wrongdoing and in the ensuing argument, he also grasped her around the neck until she freed herself by grabbing at his crotch. Having felt his ‘package’ she made a weeny gesture with her crooked little finger to mock his “…manhood, [with a] mew!”

A messenger brought news of Cornwall’s death, prompting Goneril to come forward and say she liked it well. The confusingly repetitive follow-on “tart” phrase was cut.

After the brief scene (4.3) in which Kent and a Gentleman spoke downstage with some expository details about Lear and Cordelia, the wall rose up to reveal soldiers standing amid tall grass at the back (4.4). Among them stood Cordelia in military gear with an assault rifle.

The opening of the scene was rewritten so that Cordelia asked “Where’s the King my father?” and what are normally Cordelia’s first lines describing his situation were shared between a Doctor (Hannah Stokely) and a Nurse (Cassie Bradley), ending with a reference to “in your sustaining corn”. Cordelia instructed “A century send forth” and hoped Lear would be found.

The aftermath of Cornwall’s funeral saw Regan in a formal mourning outfit consisting of a figure-hugging dark trouser suit and fascinator move across the stage accompanied in single file by her attendants, all of them carrying umbrellas and forming a gloomy Jack Vettriano-style painting (4.5).

Regan and Oswald detached from the solemn line and she questioned her servant as to why he was carrying a letter from Goneril to Edmund. She ran her fingers flirtatiously up Oswald’s shoulder while trying to talk him into revealing its contents in her gratingly affected posh accent, then plucked the letter from his inside pocket. She countered Goneril’s apparent affection for Edmund by claiming him as hers.

Edgar led Gloucester up the slope, formed by the same ramp used for the storm scene, but with now just a one-foot drop (4.6). After some deliberations, Gloucester tumbled forward over its edge and passed out.

Lear appeared in an operating gown, still with a drip tube in the back of his hand, wearing a hat with feathers, which was apparently the Fool’s hat to which some wild flowers had been added.

This minor detail was significant because it mean in effect that Lear was wearing the Fool’s “coxcomb”. It constituted a symbol of self-awareness, a crucial step towards recovering his sanity, while also showing a touching affection for the man he had killed in his blind rage.

Lear announced (using the F version) “They cannot touch me for crying”, which struck a discordant note for those familiar with the more usual “coining”.

He carried a plastic bag full of flowers and gave some of them as “press-money” to Edgar. A banana represented the mouse-baiting cheese. Lear asked Edgar to “give the word”, upon which he glanced at the flowers he had been given and guessed correctly that he should respond “sweet marjoram”.

Instead of the furious rapid hectoring Lear had used in first scene, his speech was calm, slow and infused with an almost hypnotic serenity. His languid delivery indicated that the fire inside him had burned out. Simon Russell Beale’s performance in this sequence was masterful. The barrenness of the stage and Lear’s tattered clothes rendered the moment reminiscent of Waiting for Godot.

Gloucester recognised the king and fell into conversation with him. Lear sat looking at a tabloid paper (The Sun, 15 January) containing a picture of “yon simpering dame”. He started playing with himself, pointing at the model’s chest as he described them as “women all above”, after which he needed to wipe his hand because it smelled “of mortality”.

Lear lifted up Gloucester’s bandage and looked at his eye sockets to ask “dost thou squint at me?” After asking Gloucester to remove his invisible boots, Lear recognised and named him “… thy name is Gloucester”, at which point he held and comforted him before continuing “Thou must be patient”. This tender moment further humanised the now calm Lear, and contained an echo of the way the Fool had comforted him during his madness.

But soon Lear’s mind wandered off on a tangent. He held out his hand and touched Gloucester’s head as he “preached” to him and then remarked that this head was “a good block” before plotting to shoe horses with felt and “kill, kill, kill…” his sons-in-law.

He became just as frenzied as when he had battered the Fool, tearing up the remaining flowers, which prompted the attendants to put him in a straightjacket and tie up his arms, presumably to prevent a repeat of his previous murderous rage. Once restrained in the jacket, he said he would be “jovial” and lunged forward to kiss the female attendant. Lear tried to run away but was caught and injected with a sedative in his backside. This explained the long sleep from which he would subsequently awake.

Edgar and Gloucester were left alone until Oswald and a squad of soldiers walked across the back. Oswald spotted them at a distance and moved to intercept. Knives were drawn, and Oswald was killed. He told Edgar about the letter and collapsed back dead uttering “O untimely death, death!” in a self-consciously absurd way that got a laugh.

Repose

After a brief conversation with Kent, Cordelia was informed that Lear was still sleeping (4.7). A large hospital bed with closed curtains stage right indicated his place of repose.

The curtains were drawn back and Cordelia pitied him. He awoke and rose from the bed, having been detached from the drip. He looked down at the needle still in his hand as he said “I feel this pinprick”, a piece of very modern stage business that cleverly gave sense to the phrase.

Cordelia knelt to him by the side of the bed. He tried to kneel too, but she insisted that he not abase himself. He started away, still very much befuddled, while she remained kneeling with tears in her eyes with her back to him, upset that he had not recognised her.

Then in an extremely moving moment, Cordelia looked up as she sensed his growing clarity of mind, culminating in his recognition of his “child Cordelia”. At this she looked round in nervous anticipation. He approached, wiped at her tears and tasted them to determine that they were indeed wet, thereby confirming the reality of her presence and her love for him.

Lear opened the door of the room and stood briefly in the doorway, where he saw French soldiers on guard: this prompted his question “Am I in France?”

The sequence ended on a delightful note. Lear pronounced “I am old and foolish” as he walked off extending his hand backwards, an invitation to accompany him that his dear daughter accepted by taking hold of it.

The brief exchange between Kent and the Gentleman was cut so as not to ruin the poignancy of this affectionate reunion.

The short scene 5.2 was bracketed round 5.1 so that Gloucester was hid before the battle preparations and then emerged once it had finished.

A long table stood under a chandelier covered in a dust cloth, which suggested that Regan and Edmund were preparing their assault in a large abandoned house (5.1).

Regan teasingly questioned Edmund about his intentions towards Goneril and then watched Goneril go off with him. But Regan made no comment except for a wry smile, so that the text’s tussle between the sisters was not spoken but merely hinted at.

The order of the next two sequences was reversed so that Edmund explained his dilemma over choosing between Goneril and Regan, who had just exited, pointing at Albany who was sat in semi-darkness reading at the desk, physically but not theatrically present, before concluding that he would kill Lear and Cordelia.

After Edmund has left, Edgar entered at the side and caught Albany’s attention and handed him the letter proving his wife’s treachery.

The battle ensued, marked by the sound of gunfire and the overflight of helicopters and jets, followed by the last part of 5.2. Edgar accompanied his father to the walkway and crouched to watch events onstage while Gloucester lay motionless.

Defeated and handcuffed, Lear and Cordelia were pushed and shoved into the room (5.3). They sat next to each other on the audience side of the long table.

Cordelia looked downcast, but Lear enthusiastically tried to buoy her up with the fantasy image of them singing like birds in a cage. She was initially angry at her capture, but he tried to pacify her, nuzzling her despite his hands still being bound. They were taken away, leaving Edmund to give order for their deaths to the Captain (Ross Waiton again).

An argument broke out as Regan supported Edmund’s newly enhanced status, which turned into a fight over him between her and Goneril. Regan fell progressively sick, collapsed under the table and died. Almost simultaneously, a large body of troops entered the room to act as backup as Albany arrested Edmund and confronted Goneril with her letter to him.

Albany’s jokey rebuttal of Goneril’s claim on Edmund, that his wife was “sub-contracted to this lord” and Goneril’s retort “An interlude”, were cut to remove all trace of humour from the sequence as the tragedy intensified.

Edgar entered via the aisle without the text’s fanfare, telling Edmund that he was indeed a traitor. Instead of fighting as a mystery challenger, Edgar took off his hood and spoke the lines from 5.3.165 onwards declaring who he was before attacking Edmund. This made him bolder and braver, as well as speeding up the action.

He approached Edmund, showed him his dagger and then brusquely stabbed him in stomach. Edmund fell and was comforted by Goneril, who denounced the “practice”, which in this staging was the abrupt stabbing. Albany confronted his wife with the damning letter and she tore at it claiming that “the laws are mine”.

There was no reconciliation between Edgar and the dying Edmund, which fitted with Edgar’s single-minded assault. Edmund admitted his guilt and remarked that events had come “full circle”.

Edgar recounted how he had accompanied his father Gloucester and described the circumstances of his death. Gloucester was indeed lying just offstage on the aisle walkway, which enabled his body to be part of the final tableau of the dead.

Goneril took a dagger and sat in a chair at the stage left end of the table and unceremoniously cut her own throat (possibly prompted by the story of Gloucester’s death). Once again the production surprised and shook up anyone who thought they knew what was coming next. The stage was now littered with bodies, and there was no need for Goneril or Regan to be brought out.

Edmund’s change of heart and sword dispatch were cut. After Goneril’s death he simply said that he had been “contracted to them both; all three now marry in an instant” and died. Albany shook Edmund’s slumped body asking him what had happened to Lear and Cordelia: his question was soon answered.

The finale began its final crushing movement as Lear entered carrying Cordelia, crying “howl, howl, howl”. He laid Cordelia lengthways on the table, asked for a looking glass but instead tore off a small strip of paper which he held over her mouth, talking of the feather he could see being moved by her breath. He momentarily left Cordelia and spoke to Kent who introduced himself.

As he told Kent “You’re welcome hither”, Lear picked Cordelia up from the table and sat on a chair, placing Cordelia upright on his lap where he embraced her tightly in his arms, her face turned towards his.

Albany’s comment on the allocation of power was cut to focus on Lear and Cordelia. Lear paused when he remarked that his poor fool “is… hanged”. This was either him misremembering or lying to himself.

He lamented that Cordelia had no life. Realising that “O thoul’t come no more” Lear laid her down on the ground. This marked the point at which he finally accepted she was dead.

Lear repeated the word “never” five times, staring out at the audience with wild, mad eyes, in a moment of unutterable desperation. He slumped to the ground and asked for his shirt to be unbuttoned, a task performed by Kent.

He propped himself up and gestured towards Cordelia pitifully beseeching everyone to “look on her”, but Albany and Kent deliberately turned away, only Kent giving a half-glance back. Lear collapsed and tried to crawl away with his ebbing strength towards the aisle walkway. Edgar was crouched on the walkway and extended his hand as if encouraging Lear to persevere and reach him, calling out “Look up, my lord” as Lear collapsed face down.

Edgar continued to gesture towards Lear even after he had clearly expired. Kent realised Lear had gone and eventually so did Edgar.

Kent went off to kill himself, leaving Edgar alone amid the scattered bodies to deliver his final speech, whose closing words “we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long” actually felt as if they meant something.

Conclusions

This was a great production for those who thought they had seen it all before. It kept to the outline of the story but constantly threw out surprises for both old hands and those new to the play.

The killing of the Fool and Goneril’s onstage suicide were unexpected moments that provided genuine shock.

The theme of Lear’s violent temper was explored through hints of a violent backstory underlining his relationship with Goneril. Kate Fleetwood’s performance was one of the production’s highlights for its detailed illumination of how Lear had mistreated her. As such, she represented the impact Lear had had on all his victims.

There was a distinct contrast between the fast-talking, angry Lear at the start of the play and the more languidly-voiced Lear that seemed to haunt the bleak wilderness of the end of the play.

The production managed the neat trick of being modernised and stripped bare at the same time.