King Lear, Almeida London, 6 September 2012
A set dominated by bare brick rear wall with doorways and upper level windows and galleries, together with some vaguely ancient British costume, gave the production a medieval feel.
The first scene (1.1) began in a tone that was surprisingly flat and underpowered with Kent (Ian Gelder), Gloucester (Clive Wood) and Edmund (Kieran Bew) forming a completely static group.
But it really took off with the arrival of the Lears and became intriguingly inventive.
A throne was placed centre stage ready for the arrival of Lear (Jonathan Pryce) who arranged his Regan (Jenny Jules), Goneril (Zoe Waites) and their husbands stage right. He took Cordelia (Phoebe Fox) by the hand and gave her pride of place in a spot by herself stage left. The tactility between the pair evidenced their closeness.
A map was rolled out on the ground and Lear, enacting his unburdening, took off his crown and placed it on the throne.
Regan went to speak first, but Lear gestured to silence her and called on Goneril to start. The two eldest delivered their oleaginous speeches, each in turn being rewarded by Lear with a coronet. They briefly stood on the area of the map gifted to them before returning to their husbands. Cordelia rose briefly and addressed the audience for her asides.
Turning his attentions to Cordelia, Lear did not wait to hear her speak but placed a coronet on her head immediately. This subtly preferential treatment was accompanied by yet more tactile and affectionate intimacy between the king and his favourite daughter.
They stood close together holding hands and Lear then held her gently by the upper arms, exhorting her to speak. He looked surprised at Cordelia’s “Nothing”, but continued to hold her.
When he asked for further explanation, Cordelia playfully pulled him aside and, still holding him, gently explained how she merely returned her duties, looking past Lear at her sisters as she mocked their insincerity.
Lear’s anger was expressed by his gentle touch becoming a controlling clutch. The original easy hold over her upper arms became a rigid, furious grip with which he shook her as he disclaimed all his paternal care. He let go only to snatch the map from the floor, crumple it into a bundle and throw it aside, telling Cordelia “hold thee from this for ever”.
Cordelia stood motionless with tears in her eyes, not understanding why her candour had provoked such ire.
Lear snatched the coronet from her head and tossed it at Cornwall (Chook Sibtain) and Albany (Richard Hope), which was an interesting way of working in the coronet referenced at this point.
Kent argued with Lear and ended up on his knees to hear Lear proclaim his banishment. He accepted it stoically, prefiguring his subsequent uncomplaining service.
Of the two suitors for Cordelia’s hand, Burgundy (Andrew Nolan) was rather stilted in his speech compared with the imposing figure of France (Ben Dilloway). Cordelia stood centre stage, faced us and listened as Lear, over stage right, asked if Burgundy was still interested after her fall from grace.
When France spoke, Cordelia was visibly moved by his sentiments. Having been silent for over 100 lines, Cordelia was spurred to speak by this support from France. She turned and mockingly apologised to Lear for not having “that glib and oily art”. Her anger cowed Lear so that his “Better thou hadst not been born…” was quiet, almost defensive, rather than a loud rant. Cordelia was similarly dismissive towards Burgundy when he declined a dowerless bride.
France came forward and held Cordelia to seize upon her and her virtues. He escorted Cordelia off, but she broke away from him to return and castigate her sisters. Cordelia’s pointed afterthought was received with an icy coldness, particularly by Regan who retorted “Prescribe us not our duty”.
Edmund spoke in a vague northern accent to deliver his humorous soliloquy about his bastardy (1.2). Gloucester (Clive Wood) fell easily for his letter trick and became outraged at Edgar’s apparent plot against him.
Edgar (Richard Goulding) appeared with his arm around a servant girl. Edmund stuffed some cash into her hand to get her to leave them alone. Unlike his bastard half-brother, Edgar had a southern accent, which to this London audience rendered him the good-guy in comparison.
Edmund got straight down to the question about when Edgar had last seen his father. The references to “sectary astronomical” and to eclipses were cut. Together with his womanising, this made Edgar seem less of a studious weed and more like a lad who could fight.
After a brief scene in which Goneril instructed Oswald (Steven Elliot) to ignore Lear (1.3), Kent adopted a rustic accent to disguise himself (1.4). Lear and his party entered with the hunters hanging up a deer and draining its blood into a bucket.
Oswald, a strong figure, ignored Lear’s summons. When called back, he stood toe to toe with Lear, looking down at him. This physical intimidation made the disguised Kent’s tripping of Oswald a feat truly worthy of reward.
The Fool (Trevor Fox) was a Geordie whose playfulness was a complete delight. His doggerel was accompanied by a magic trick. He collected handkerchiefs from those around him, stuffed them in his coxcomb hat and got someone to tug on a protruding end and extract a string of handkerchiefs tied together. On a textual note, the original “brach” was changed to “bitch”.
The sweet and bitter fool jest was followed by an egg trick in which the Fool split the egg in two over Lear’s head. It had no yolk and looked like a magician’s prop. The Fool went quiet when Goneril entered.
Increasingly despairing at his treatment, Lear held his hands out and gazed around in disbelief saying “Does any here know me?” His words were not said in despair but rather with energetic sarcasm. This same energy also informed his head-beating and the horrific sterility curse he pronounced on Goneril.
At l.288 things became decidedly sinister. Lear approached Goneril and stood close to her. He kissed her full on the lips, menacing “Thou shalt find that I’ll resume the shape which thou dost think I have cast off for ever.”
Goneril pulled away in disgust and wiped her mouth. She asked husband Albany “Do you mark that, my lord?” which in context became a clear reference to Lear’s inappropriate behaviour. She was shocked for quite some time after.
The sequence looked like a threat of abuse, something confirmed by a similar sequence later on involving Lear and Regan.
Albany was greying and middle aged. He was quite meek, which would later justify Goneril’s dissatisfaction with him and preference for Edmund.
A brief scene between Lear and the Fool saw more filleting of the Fool’s remarks with his heels/kibes joke cut (1.5). It culminated in Lear desiring not to be mad as the Fool, taking pity, held and comforted him.
After Curan’s exposition about the arrival of Regan and Cornwall and the dispute between the dukes, Edmund called on Edgar to leave (2.1). He cut himself and sent the watch looking for Edgar the wrong way.
Our first extensive look at Cornwall showed him to be a man with a regal bearing, who either thought himself a monarch or was close to monarchical ambitions being fulfilled. His seizing upon Edmund sounded like a king appointing a favourite. In particular his “natures of such deep trust we shall much need” indicated that he had plans for the future that required assistance.
Kent met up with Oswald again (2.2). Kent’s rant was strangely edited so that it ended with “if thou deniest the least syllable” cutting “of thy addition”, a phrase presumed too difficult to understand.
Their fight was brought to an end by the arrival of the others, but principally by Cornwall’s imperious shouting and threat. It was indicative of the difference between their characters that Gloucester merely enquired what the matter was, but Cornwall actually brought the fight to an end.
The references to Sarum plain and Camelot were cut, again presumably to avoid confusion.
Cornwall further cemented his alliance with Edmund by addressing his joke about Kent’s plainness to him, mocking Kent’s accent, with his arm jocularly around Edmund’s neck.
Cornwall also took control in ordering Kent to be put in the stocks. Again, this was not his house to give orders.
The stocks were plunged into darkness as Edgar ran in with the sound of his pursuers audible offstage (2.3). He opened a tile in the floor to find refuge. Some of his pursuers passed over the stage, causing him to curl into a ball and begin his Poor Tom act. Taking him for an innocuous madman, they left him alone and continued their search.
Lear was angry to discover Kent in the stocks (2.4). During his jesting, the Fool’s ant speech was cut and he took his riding crop to beat down the eels in the pie.
Confronted with icy Regan, Lear begged sarcastically for food. Then sarcasm turned into something more distasteful.
Lear gripped hold of Regan and there was something distinctly unfatherly about the way he looked at her. When he said he hoped that she would not “oppose the bolt” against his “coming in”, Regan was very uncomfortable. He gripped her wrists and she flexed her fingers as if wanting to escape his grip.
When Goneril entered, Lear ducked to one side and held his head in his heads, then looked heavenward to comment sarcastically about the unwelcomeness of this arrival.
The sisters rounded on Lear, driving him into greater frustration. A storm was brewing outside. Lear threatened “the terrors of the earth” but the sisters were unmoved and Lear seemed ineffectual. The Fool, tactile as ever, took hold of Lear and gradually eased him offstage as he continued to rave. His final words “I shall go mad” indicated his parting mood.
Kent and the Knight met for the expository scene in which we learnt about Lear’s open air wanderings and the conflict between Albany and Cornwall (3.1). The Knight was sent on his way to Dover.
Lear rushed on stage to the noise of the storm illuminated from below through a long thin aperture (3.2). He leant forward into the wind as the Fool held on to him, trying to hold him back. The Fool’s previous supportive hold was now one of restraint.
The tempest looked effective, but such quasi-filmic stagings can feel quite dull and clichéd.
The storm was kept quiet enough for Lear to be heard, which meant it was not sufficiently loud to justify his description of it.
Kent led Lear away, leaving the Fool to deliver his prophecy. His Geordie accent rhymed “water” with “matter” so that we got something approaching Original Pronunciation.
Gloucester and Edmund appeared for the brief scene in which the old man showed Edmund his traitorous letter (3.3).
Lear and party re-entered and tried to gain access to the hovel down the trap (3.4). Edgar appeared as Poor Tom wearing a loin cloth with his hair matted. The audience laughed quite loudly and distinctly at Lear’s questions to Poor Tom about his supposed daughters.
Lear took a liking to the beggar, nodding vigorously as Poor Tom related how he had come to his condition. Gloucester came to escort Lear indoors, but the king was comically distracted by his conversation with Tom. Crucially, Edgar did not overhear his father commenting on his grief at Edgar’s supposed treachery.
Cornwall and Edmund appeared in the gallery above the main stage providing a dramatic setting for Edmund to show his father’s letter to the Duke (3.5).
Lear and his companions entered the shelter and the king began to put his daughters on trial (3.6). He had Edgar and the Fool sit on a bench and made them put their hands on their heads. He then sat between them in the same posture and put the stool on trial. Regan was represented by a coat stuffed on top of the stool. Lear swiped at the stool and coat throwing them to one side and then complained that his daughters had escaped.
All throughout Poor Tom’s madness was trimmed, possibly to restrict it to his more comprehensible utterances. As a consequence, Lear became the focus of the scene rather than Edgar.
Lear was comical when he looked askance at Edgar’s dishevelment, which he described as “Persian attire”. Touches like this meant that this scene showed more of Lear’s madness than the previous storm scene.
Kent laid the king down on a bench and Lear made a fuss of drawing invisible curtains around the bed. He noticed a cut on his finger and looked at Poor Tom as if this signified that they were kindred spirits because of their injuries. Gloucester came to warn them of the plot against Lear in order that they could escape.
Edgar’s last speech in the scene, describing seeing our betters “bearing our woes”, was said in his normal voice. The Fool overheard him talking as himself, but said nothing.
Cornwall began the blinding sequence by sitting in a chair literally holding court and acting like an authority figure giving orders (3.7). This was typical of him throughout. He vacated the chair which then gained another use to pinion Gloucester. There followed a standard gunge application blinding.
Regan tried twice to attack the servant who had assaulted Cornwall, cutting him both on the leg and the back of neck. Cornwall flicked Gloucester’s other eye at the servant to the audience’s disgust.
Once Cornwall’s work was done, the female servant (Alix Wilton Regan) who had watched in awe during the blinding came forward and tended to Gloucester. The stage went dark, and then the lights came up on a sprig of flower centre stage. The interval came at this point, and more such sprigs were planted around the stage for the start of the second half.
Edgar met Gloucester who was being led by the female servant who had cared for him, now identified as one of his tenants (4.1).
All Poor Tom’s odd utterances about Obidicut, Flibbertigibbet etc. were cut. This had the effect of making him seem more normal. Edgar escorted his father as they set off for Dover.
Arriving outside her house, Goneril instructed Edmund to return to her brother-in-law and bade him an unambiguous farewell (4.2). She spoke coyly of “a mistress’s command” and took a ring from her finger which she put on Edmund’s little finger (not a chain round his neck) before kissing him.
She spoke in frustration of “the difference of man and man” and leant up against the wall with her hands behind her back. She writhed teasingly when Albany entered and told him “I have been worth the whistling”.
Albany was scathing, but Goneril seemed secure in Edmund’s affections which now emboldened her to disdain her husband, mocking him with her “Mew!”
Regan seemed pleased to hear of Cornwall’s death, saying “one way I like this well”. But for some reason her follow-up “another way the news is not so tart” was not included.
Scene 4.3 was cut, so the action continued with Cordelia in a blue dress adorned with a cloth chest piece (4.4). She was steely but vulnerable when expressing her concern about Lear’s distracted condition.
Regan tried to obtain from Oswald the letter that Goneril had sent to Edmund (4.5). Another strange textual change saw “oeillades” changed to “eyes”. Bearing in mind that the production had virtually sold out to the Almeida membership, and the rest of the tickets had been snapped up by the keenest of theatregoers, such elaborations on allegedly difficult words were not really necessary.
Edgar led Gloucester to the cliff edge whereupon he just fell and tumbled to one side (4.6). Edgar comically muffled his voice in order to seem far away.
Lear rushed in wearing a floral crown. He brandishing a coin when referring to coining and the mad play involving archers, mice and cheese was amusing to watch. When declaring himself “every inch a king”, his voice became haughty as he gestured at himself.
Describing the lechery of “the fitchew” and “the soiled horse”, Lear gestured with two fingers poking up into “the sulphurous pit”, which he then had to clean before Gloucester could kiss his hand. He pointed his rear at Gloucester when asking him to read the challenge.
Amazingly the audience did not burst into gales of laughter at the remark about “a scurvy politician”, which some people interpret as Shakespeare taking a shot at Westminster style politics.
Lear wanted Gloucester to take his boots off. He put his hands together as in devotion and turned the “great stage of fools” lines into a sung prayer. But this moment of reverence was short-lived and Lear was soon spitting in anger about killing his sons-in-law.
Lear tried to escape from Cordelia’s men by running, but he was caught immediately.
Oswald tried to kill Gloucester, but was prevented by Edgar, who did not exaggeratedly disguise his voice as suggested by the text. After killing Oswald and finding his letters, Edgar carried Oswald offstage before returning for his father.
Kent was reunited with Cordelia and resumed talking in his normal accent (4.7). Lear was wheeled onstage in a chair. Cordelia was curt and insecure when giving orders to her followers.
She kissed her father who awoke by simply opening his eyes. Lear looked at her thinking she was a spirit.
Cordelia threw herself on ground before him, but Lear lifted her up again and looked at her closely, eventually recognising her.
He held her gently by the forearms adopting the same pose in which he had originally disowned her. This mirroring was a nice touch.
The conversation between Kent and the Gentleman with the joke about report being changeable was cut.
The sisters met again along with Albany and Edmund for the council of war (5.1). As Albany and Edmund left to discuss the forthcoming battle with “the ancients of war” Goneril wanted to follow him, but Regan discouraged her. After Albany received Edgar’s letter, Edmund comically summarised his dilemma at having to choose between Regan and Goneril.
After a brief scene in which Edgar carried Gloucester away, telling him that Lear had lost (5.2), Cordelia and Lear were brought onstage (5.3). They appeared quite free and unfettered when led in by Edmund, so it was not immediately obvious that they had been captured.
Lear was almost childishly happy to be going to prison with Cordelia. But with the two warring sisters together again, a spat was not far away. Their argument over Edmund was cut short when he was arrested by Albany, who witheringly pointing out to Goneril that his own wife Regan was contracted to marry Edmund. Goneril’s rejoinder “An interlude!” was cut.
Regan exited sick with poison as Edmund awaited a challenger. Edgar wore a cloth helmet with steel reinforcement. This was strong enough to look like protection but not so restrictive that his voice was muffled.
In a great two-sword fight, Edgar managed to deprive Edmund of one of his weapons and finished him off. Goneril rushed in to bewail Edmund’s injury. Albany confronted her with the letter. Failing to snatch it, Goneril ran off claiming that “the laws are mine”, threatening Edgar briefly as she left.
Edgar told Edmund his full story and, recounting the death of Gloucester, paused in between “burst… smilingly”. Edmund seemed genuinely moved, and this motivated his revelation of the threat to Lear and Cordelia. But Albany was nevertheless angry at him for what he had done. Edgar’s speech about the banished Kent was cut.
Neither Goneril’s nor Regan’s body was produced on stage. No sooner had someone run off with Edmund’s sword to reprieve Lear and Cordelia, than Lear appeared at the back cradling Cordelia’s limp figure in his arms. Jonathan Pryce held her quite easily.
He placed her on the ground and continued to cradle her. He held her so that she faced him, her almost prone body stretched out to the side and behind him. This semi-upright posture kept both of them equally visible to more of the audience. The configuration emphasised the limpness and frailty of Cordelia’s obviously dead body in a way that would not have been possible if she had been lying prone.
Lear’s tenderness over her was touching. After asking the others to look at Cordelia’s lips, Lear collapsed in a fit, shaking with tremors and then died. This was more effective than a simple fading faint, as it marked a definitive end.
The stage lights faded to black on Edgar’s closing words.
The production made Cordelia seem wise and adult despite her playful tactility towards her father. Cordelia was by status a child, but by temperament the most mature. Goneril and Regan were the exact opposite, having the status of older siblings but the impulsive immaturity of children.
Most puzzling was the decision to imply incest between Lear and both Regan and Goneril. If Lear was a serial abuser, did this mean that Cordelia was also a victim? If not, why did Lear spare her, but apparently regard her as his favourite? If so, with Goneril and Regan motivated by revenge, was Cordelia’s attitude a different form of rebellion or was she in denial or even acquiescent in her own mistreatment?
The lack of clarity on this matter made subsequent theorising about the backstory incredibly difficult.
The second time I saw this production on 11 October, Jenny Jules was delayed and the performance started with Alix Wilton Regan in the role of Regan. She acted script in hand bravely keeping her cool among the other actors. She remained in that role for the entire first act. In recognition of her sterling efforts, Jonathan Pryce brought her on for her own thoroughly deserved curtain call at the end of the performance. Such was her shock that Pryce had to remind her to bow.