Twisted sisters

King Lear, Tobacco Factory, 18 February 2012

John Shrapnel propelled his Lear through this production with the wholly appropriate determination of a bullet, never yielding to the personal and impersonal forces ranged against him.

But Shrapnel’s Lear also remained likeable. This was partly because, Cordelia aside, he was surrounded by an unpleasant freak show of an extended family whose ghastliness was magnified by the Tobacco Factory’s small performance space.

A possible psychological backstory would posit that Lear’s personal tyranny had deformed those closest to him into grotesques. He seemed almost normal by comparison, because he had the knack of bending others to his will, and consequently out of all shape.

At the start of the play this Lear was old but vigorous, displaying no signs of entering his dotage.

When his family gathered to hear him speak, Lear gave Cordelia pride of place at the head of a long table. He kissed her lovingly on the head before sitting in his ornate wooden throne at the other end. Goneril and Regan sat at a distance behind Cordelia accompanied by their husbands.

Lear dispatched Gloucester to fetch France and Burgundy and, checking to make sure he had gone, set about unveiling his “darker purpose”. In the first few minutes of the play, this Lear showed himself to be a man accustomed to having things, and especially people, precisely where he wanted them.

Cordelia’s response “Nothing” to his request for praise did not register with him to begin with. It came completely unexpectedly and passed him by.

A lack of emotional involvement also seemed to characterise his long speech dismissing Cordelia from his favour. Lear was calm and collected initially, with all the fervour of Lord Sugar sacking a wannabe apprentice. It was not until he mentioned “the barbarous Scythian” that he finally exploded in rage, his heart lagging a few minutes behind his brain.

Kent’s repeated challenge of Lear’s judgment fired Lear even further. The king thumped his fist on the table and, exclaiming “recreant, on thine allegiance”, made Kent kneel before him.

Nothing

Lear reaffirmed the withdrawal of Cordelia’s dowry telling Burgundy “Nothing. I have sworn”. But the emphasis he placed on “Nothing” together with the gaze he fixed on his daughter, meant that he was in effect taunting Cordelia with her own word of choice.

Despite keeping an all-licensed Fool and enjoying his company, Lear was surprised and angry when his irreverent companion placed his tattered tricorne hat on Lear’s head, identifying him as the bitter fool who had given his kingdom away. His weariness with the Fool’s jests was also revealed when he mouthed along with the punchline to the gag about making two crowns from an egg.

This energetic impatience with others and their failings was seen in moments that normally signal Lear’s decay, turning them into further indications of his strength.

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” became for this Lear a challenge to those around him rather than an expression of his own bewilderment.

There was also no assurance or power lacking in his striking speech cursing Goneril with sterility. Cutting and unpleasant, he seemed very comfortable with this kind of invective.

In keeping with his general lack of empathy with others, there was no sense of closeness between Lear and his Fool when he confessed that he had done Cordelia wrong.

A remote symbolic union of sorts was created when Lear threw off his cloak promising to “abjure all roofs”. This gesture mirrored Edgar earlier in the scene casting his doublet to the ground to proclaim “Edgar I nothing am”.

The first signs of true disturbance in Lear’s mind only appeared after the storm, which in the Tobacco Factory space was indicated by flashes of light and thunder sound effects. Instead of breaking down under the torrential rain, it was not until he was ushered into shelter by Gloucester, and holding the mock trial of his two daughters, that Lear displayed any significant perturbation. As with his banishment of Kent, his mood only boiled over after a delay.

This meant that his normally distracted questioning of Poor Tom about whether his condition was the result of giving all to his daughters was spoken coolly and rationally. His insistence on talking to the philosopher and “learned Theban” sounded knowingly sarcastic rather than delirious.

Lear reappeared with flowers in his hair raving about mice and cheese. But he only appeared to be properly mad when he stuck his hand down his trousers to indicate the location of the burning, sulphurous pit.

His reunion with Gloucester was one of the most moving sequences in the production, displaying here much more genuine feeling than in any of his dealings with the Fool.

Lear’s characteristic strength also extended into his reunion with Cordelia. When he awoke from his sleep, his eyes flashed open in an instant. He was fully lucid and just as strong as before, as if merely opening his eyes from a brief rest.

The most remarkable display of resilience of the night saw Lear carry Cordelia onstage in a fireman’s lift. His “Howl, howl, howl” was not a desperate cry, but a repeated instruction to those around him to begin their wailing at the tragedy of Cordelia’s death. This made perfect sense of his next words, which were a complaint about them being speechless “men of stone”.

Warped

The other characters floundering in the wake of this indefatigable dynamism had become warped in the process.

Goneril (Julia Hills) was portrayed as middle-aged. Her advancing years seemed to have increased her regal pretentions and ambition to replace her father on the throne. The thwarting of this ambition had produced in her a shrill bitterness.

She was genuinely upset by the behaviour of Lear and his knights at her house. Given Lear’s domineering character, it was possible to sympathise with her position and to see her as victim rather than aggressor.

In some productions Goneril’s embrace of Edmund is staged as the culmination of a mutual attraction that is suddenly presented to the audience. Here, however, Goneril almost ambushed Edmund in desperation. She presented him with a ring, so that her instruction to him to decline his head was an unequivocal invitation to kiss.

As she smooched her beloved, something akin to shock played across Edmund’s face, which the blocking had placed in full view of the audience.

Her choice of Edmund as paramour was particularly odd. His characterisation had been deliberately engineered to have none of the swaggering bad-boy animal magnetism of many Edmunds.

On his first appearance, he held his hands nervously in front of him and seemed very self-effacing. He sat obediently and performed the function of scrivener when Lear began to speak to his family. Crouched on a low stool at the edge of the stage, with a writing table perched on his knees, he was subservient and bookish. These are traits often used to characterise Edgar.

His soliloquy about the folly of astrology included a very camp impression of an apologist for the practice that did nothing to enhance his manliness.

Even when he took on a more active role, donning a black jacket designed to make him look the part, he continued to be a fortunate opportunist rather than an unstoppable force.

Goneril was not, therefore, surrendering to his irresistible charms.

Her husband Albany was greying and dour, suggesting perhaps a sourness of the same degree and origin as his wife’s.

Rotund

Regan (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) was much younger than Goneril and her busty corpulence was mirrored by the rotund, almost comical obesity of Cornwall. It came as no surprise to read that Byron Mondahl had previously played an ugly sister in pantomime, as his Cornwall here was roughly similar.

Her sly and conniving nature is indicated heavily in the text. For one, she poisons her sister. And more subtly, she replies to Lear’s reminder of what he had given her with the revealingly callous riposte “And in good time you gave it”.

The production expanded on this trait by having her flirt with Oswald to get him to hand over Goneril’s letter to Edmund. As soon as her attempt failed, her face snapped out of its false smile to reveal her inner bitterness.

At times, Regan and Goneril seemed to be badly acted. But on closer inspection what was being presented was a well-acted portrayal of a pair who had spent their lives acting badly at being dutiful daughters.

The two of them reached the apogee of their horribleness during their spat over Edmund in 5.3, which was made all the more wretched by the man’s lack of any obvious lady-killing charisma.

Edgar on the other hand, did make an incredibly powerful impression on his transformation into Poor Tom. Picking up on his reference to beggars who stick pins and nails in their arms, when Edgar first appeared in his disguise his forearms were dotted with sharp needles. Blood seeped from the tiny wounds. He inserted additional needles as he spoke, so that the pain in his voice was partly the result of these continuing self-inflicted agonies.

When Lear spoke of Poor Tom having “thus little mercy” on his flesh and of his “judicious punishment” for the assumed offence of giving all away to his daughters, his point was graphically illustrated by this gruesome self-mortification.

The strength of will that this required made Edgar seem stronger than his brother. It came as no surprise therefore that he defeated him in combat in the final scene of the play.

Eleanor Yates’s Cordelia was fair of face, white of dress, and gazed out at the world through a pair of blue eyes that seemed to bulge slightly larger than life. Even her battle dress was themed white, set off by a cream-coloured webbing belt.

It was only when Lear lay next to Cordelia’s dead body, with its trace of rope burn around the neck, and wistfully willed her back to life, that it was possible to talk in terms of this Lear being truly defeated. And shortly after that he expired.

Conclusions

Built around the solidity and drive of Shrapnel’s Lear, this production saw Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory once again deliver something that felt much grander than the company’s limited resources should have allowed.

They consistently punch above their weight, and to such an extent that this small, unsubsidised company is rightly bracketed alongside much larger and better funded producers.

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