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.

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A Northern Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 9 February 2013

As we looked down at the sea, the sunlight sparkled on the gently rippling waves kissing the coast of luscious Sicily, all of which was a computer-generated projection on the back wall. High above the rocky outcrops of the shore, the royal palace presented a scene of relaxed luxury. On the real stage in front of the projections, revellers lay dozing after a feast, sprawled on elegant blankets and cushions.

Into this scene stepped Camillo (Daniel Betts) and Archidamus (David Shaw-Parker), the latter casting lascivious glances at a reclining woman and evidently much taken with the two buxom nurses who brought in Mamillius (1.1). That a guest from the Bohemian court should be taking such evident pleasure in the Sicilian women cleverly prefigured Leontes’ suspicions.

Leontes (Jo Stone-Fewings), Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) and Polixenes (Adam Levy) awoke with a start and threw off the blanket under which they had slept (1.2). This established the close relationship between the royal friends. Hermione asked Polixenes to remain longer without any hint of flirtation, and Leontes’ generally affable demeanour meant that the slight snarl with which he accompanied “At my request he would not” came as a complete surprise.

Whatever was fermenting inside Leontes did not translate into any anger or aggression towards Hermione when he explained that the first time that she had spoken well was when agreeing to marry him. In thanks for this praise, Hermione dutifully kissed her husband referring to her first good deed that “for ever earned a royal husband”.

But then as Hermione referred to “the other for some while a friend”, she turned to kiss Polixenes and they both froze in a red spotlight. Polixenes smooch her passionately, prompting Leontes to exclaim to us “Too hot, too hot!” He turned to face them once more, continuing his description of their “paddling palms”, while Polixenes leant forward to listen at Hermione’s baby bump as if listening to the sound of his own child.

The red (for anger) colour of the light and the clearly fanciful actions of Polixenes hinted that what we were seeing was Leontes’ distorted imagination and not reality.

Leontes clutched Mamillius to him but still displayed no outward sign of distress to his wife and friend, with an ease that suggested years of such dissembling in matters of state.

He turned again and in red spotlight saw Hermione and Polixenes holding hands in a dance as they slipped away offstage. This led Leontes into his speech to the audience about the ubiquity of infidelity which he delivered in a calm and resigned manner.

His furious insistence to Camillo that Hermione had been unfaithful, with his lingering meditation on Polixenes’ apparent desire to “satisfy” Hermione’s entreaties, drew objections from the servant but ultimately unquestioning obedience. Camillo would poison Polixenes.

Polixenes heard Camillo’s warning about his fatal errand incredulously and offered the servant an opportunity to escape, which he took.

As Mamillius snuggled close to his mother to tell his winter’s tale downstage, further upstage near the raised platform, Leontes fulminated about Hermione’s betrayal before bursting in on them (2.1).

He accused her openly of adultery. His response to her denial was to punch her brutally on the belly with such force that, after some moments in shock, she fell to the ground clutching at her unborn child.

But despite the savagery of Leontes’ attack, Hermione acted protectively of him. He collapsed in anguish next to her and she smothered him with her arms, convinced that he was temporarily distracted. Her solicitous concern for her husband, even after he had assaulted her, was a very powerful statement about her character.

Leontes dealt with his attendants’ objections forcefully but with no sign of the excessive anger that had occasioned his punch. He went to lie down on the raised platform.

Determined

Paulina (Rakie Ayola) was in her own way as brisk, determined and business-like as Leontes. Her insistence that Hermione’s new-born daughter be brought to her was successful (2.2).

As each sequence had progressed the viewpoint of the sea on the back wall projection had descended ever closer to sea level. By now it was showing rocks bathed in cold rather than warm light with a hint of snow.

A projection showed Leontes’ nightmare, in which he plunged from a great height into the sea (2.3). He awoke from his sleep at the moment of impact and described how he had “nor night nor day no rest”.

Paulina approached with the baby in a bundle. The prop baby made very realistic gurgling and crying noises.

Though there was some comedy from Antigonus (Duncan Wisbey), who wittily pointed out that most husbands cannot silence their wives, and also turned to shush the baby whose cries he feared would further anger the already riled Leontes, the sequence was mostly characterised by Leontes’ fury at Paulina and the baby.

He had to be restrained from rushing at the precariously placed child. He had already effectively punched her on the head when in the womb and was now a further threat as she was lying on the ground before him.

Paulina’s determined handling of Leontes put him so much on the back foot, that when he turned to his attendants to say “Were I a tyrant, where were her life?” it was as if he was trying to overcome their scepticism.

With Paulina gone and only his men to deal with, Leontes wavered only slightly in his determination to see the child killed. But eventually he had Antigonus swear by placing his hand on a large sword to leave the child in a remote place.

Cleomenes (Joseph Pitcher) and Dion (Daniel Millar) appeared like Edwardian adventurers describing their return from the oracle at Delphos (3.1).

The court session opened with a number of shackled prisoners being ushered into the court and an executioner with a large sword standing upstage ready to execute the guilty (3.2).

After the charge was read, Hermione began her staccato defence. Stilted rather than the emotional, this speech was the only weak point in Tara Fitzgerald’s performance. Leontes’ constant contradictions led her to speak “Sir. You. Speak. A. Language. That. I. Understand. Not” word by word as if talking to someone slow of understanding.

Proving that she did not fear to die, she offered up her neck to the executioner who lined up the edge of his blade as onlookers cried “no!” in protest. But Hermione appealed to the oracle, a request which on being adjudicated just, caused the executioner to put his blade aside.

After swearing on the executioner’s sword, Cleomenes and Dion handed over the sealed scroll. There was great rejoicing at the news that Hermione and Camillo were innocent. But Leontes, branded a tyrant, came forward and scrutinised the scroll before weakly declaring that it contained no truth. At this time Hermione and Paulina found themselves staring at each other upstage in a strange close formation that perhaps foreshadowed their subsequent arrangement.

Tunic

That instant, one of the nurses brought in the neatly folded Tudor tunic that had belonged to Mamillius with the news that he had died. The queen fainted and was escorted away by Paulina while Leontes crouched and bewailed his mistake.

On her return to confront Leontes with the reality of his error, Paulina took a shawl from her shoulders and hit Leontes firmly with it, venting her frustration.

Leontes staggered upstage to the raised platform, which began to rise out of the ground, becoming a tall tower made of telescopic sections bearing him aloft. The dirty industrial look of the tower made it reminiscent of the factory chimneys that had so effectively marked the industrial era in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony the previous year.

With the back wall projection showing a ship tossed at sea, Antigonus and the Mariner (Phil Snowden) brought the baby ashore in a small wicker basket (3.3).

The ship split sending its crew plunging into the water, while Antigonus was chased away by a CGI bear that appeared to rear up out of the sea and walk across it. This was puzzling and lacked all credibility.

The entry of the Old Shepherd (David Shaw-Parker again)brought some welcome relief with his speech about the boiled brains of the young. He wandered up and down casting occasional glances at the wicker basket until finally stooping to examine it.

The Young Shepherd (Nick Holder) was a fat and bald comedy northerner. He described the shipwreck and bear attack, miming the bear chewing on Antigonus’ severed arm. At this point the interval came.

With no figure of Time to mark the passing of 16 years, the second half began with 4.2 as Polixenes and Camillo themselves mentioned the passage of 16 years (corrected from F1’s 15). They hatched their plan to visit Florizel (Gavin Fowler) in disguise.

Leontes was still just visible reclining on the top of the tower which now had a pipe curled round it rather like an industrial helter skelter.

The stage became filled with Edwardian seaside folk dozing on deck chairs and asleep on the ground in a mirror image of the scene of lazy splendour at the start of the performance, but this time against the backdrop of grimy industrial tower itself standing in front of a projection of a seaside pier.

Pearce Quigley’s Autolycus was one of the highlights of the production (4.3). His laconic dry-witted characterisation was instantly recognisable as a variation on the Grumio he had played the previous year at The Globe.

He sang as he strolled among the sleepy sunbathers, first stealing an ice-cream and then a drink before eyeing a sheet that a woman slept on. He tugged on the sheet but it would not move from under her. So he turned his back and broke wind, causing the woman to roll away and release the sheet. When she awoke he proceeded to sell the sheet back to her, turning to the audience with a grin to announce “My traffic is sheets”.

Off in the distance on the pier, the sound of a funfair hammer bell prompted Autolycus to say “A prize!”

The Young Shepherd woke up and simultaneously felt the chest and stroked the groin of the woman and man next to him in a grotesque and ribald parody of the awakening of the royal family at the start of the performance.

As he went over his list of intended purchases, behind him Autolycus quickly stole a long stick and a pair of (anachronistic) sunglasses and attracted the Young Shepherd’s attention while pretending to be blind. Autolycus picked the shepherd’s pocket as he manipulated his victim’s shoulder.

But the shepherd went to retrieve his now missing purse, and Autolycus realised he would discover the recent theft. So he instinctively took off his glasses and gestured wildly at the picked pocket insisting that he did not need the shepherd’s money. This miraculous restoration of Autolycus’ vision was a mistake that he hastily corrected but replacing his glasses and acting blind again. The shepherd gave a brief, quizzical look before dismissing the anomaly.

Satisfied with his work, Autolycus sang “Jog on, jog on…” as he exited.

Fortune

Our first look at Florizel and Perdita (Emma Noakes) showed the young woman to have completely assimilated the northern accent of her adoptive family while the young man’s accent betrayed his noble birth. The two shepherds meanwhile were very finely dressed, the result of the small fortune they had found alongside baby Perdita.

As people gathered for the fair, Polixenes and Camillo entered in their disguises, which were neither extravagant nor comic, but standard Edwardian gentlemen’s apparel. The Old Shepherd had to force Perdita forward to greet the new arrivals.

Florizel and Perdita began to dance and both froze in position as Florizel lifted Perdita aloft, allowing Polixenes and Camillo to make extensive praise of her. At this instant she was elevated both physically and in terms of renown.

This action freeze and associated comment was a positive version of Leontes red-mist vision of Hermione and Polixenes in the first half. The jealous anger of the former now contrasted with the generous affection of the latter.

Mopsa (Charlotte Mills) and Dorcas (Sally Bankes) were two plain low-class women who fought over the Young Shepherd in a comical.

Autolycus arrived at the fair disguised in a turban and pantaloons, which made him unrecognisable to the shepherd he had recently robbed. He carried in a tall, narrow funfair tent bearing the name of Elias the seer or a fortune teller.

Further dispute between Mopsa and Dorcas caused the Young Shepherd to ask “Will they wear their fannies where they should bear their faces?” i.e. changed from the original “plackets”.

Autolycus’ exited to sell some of his wares and was followed by an accordionist. He stopped and asked him “Can I help you?” and beckoned to him to follow as he left to accompany the shepherd and his girls.

The dance of the twelve Satyrs was a northern clog morris dance that was very enjoyable to watch, unlike many attempts at staging this particular sequence.

Polixenes began a closer interrogation of Florizel, who made a veiled boast of his impending inheritance “one being dead”, and thus increased his father’s ire.

Polixenes rushed round the back of the helter skelter tower and made a grand entrance out of the lower end of the pipe, in his shirtsleeves and smeared with dirt, to reveal his true identity to his son and threaten the Old Shepherd and Perdita.

Spying an opportunity to return home, Camillo advised Florizel and Perdita to flee to Sicily.

Autolycus returned with his swag, which prompted Camillo to propose an exchange of clothes to provide Florizel and Perdita with disguises. They went into his tent to swap garments, but Autolycus had to send the accordionist out first, telling him “Get your own tent”, at which point he slouched away dejectedly.

Florizel took Autolycus’ shirt while Perdita had his oversize pantaloons, while in exchange Autolycus received a fine, long white coat.

This set him up nicely to trick the two shepherds, who were worried by their connection with the disgraced Perdita, into thinking he was a courtier. Addressing the “rustics”, he spoke as finely as he could while emphasising he had “the air of the court” by adopting a series of ridiculous stances, like an athlete warming up by bending at one knee.

His change from “fardel” to “box” was spoken as a deliberate simplification for the simple shepherds.

Autolycus enjoyed his protracted description of the fate awaiting the Young Shepherd, pausing after each punishment to continue with a repetitive “then”. Each continuation of “then” caused the two shepherds equal alarm, so much so that the Young Shepherd greeted the final one by swearing under his breath.

He escorted them to the ship on which Florizel and company were getting ready to sail to Sicily.

Tower

Marking the shift of scene back to Sicily, the tower rotated to reveal it had no back, displaying a network of stairs leading from the ground to the top where Leontes still lay after 16 years (5.1).

Paulina, Cleomenes and Dion gathered at its base, with Cleomenes knocking on the door to summon Leontes from his prison.

This striking staging meant that both Leontes and Hermione had spent the same period of time in seclusion from the rest of the world.

He descended to ground level wrapped in a red blanket, the same colour as the rage of his jealous, angry visions of Hermione’s supposed infidelity.

Leontes’ sad ruminations turned to something approaching happiness when Florizel and his princess arrived.

The prince was confident in his explanation of his presence, despite hesitating when he claimed that Perdita “came from Libya”. Perdita was not required to speak, otherwise her distinctive accent would have instantly revealed that she was not Libyan.

The second messenger’s news of the arrival of Polixenes and the truth of young people’s flight brought revelation upon revelation with Leontes promising to help the would-be marrieds.

The joyous offstage reunions were related by two inebriated gentlemen, one still holding the champagne bottle and glasses that had attended the impromptu celebrations (5.2).

Autolycus listened keenly to these accounts before humbling himself by kneeling before the two shepherds, whose fine clothes were now decorated with jewels. The previously bald Young Shepherd was also sporting a fine blond wig.

But despite his apparent contrition, Autolycus could not resist pick-pocketing from them once more, going so far as to steal the Young Shepherd’s wig.

Paulina gathered the spectators for the viewing of the statue of Hermione. A white gauze tent was brought on, its structure and design very (and possibly deliberately) similar to Autolycus’ fairground tent, except for its brilliant pure whiteness (5.3).

The curtain was drawn back to reveal Hermione dressed in white like a classical statue, holding a large goblet in front of her with both hands. This pose was easy to hold completely still for the required time.

Leontes was immediately moved to approach the figure, as was Perdita who despite her supposed innate breeding, impulsively lunged forward and had to be restrained by Paulina.

There was some tittering from the audience when Leontes noticed the wrinkles on Hermione’s face, which Paulina excused as the artistic licence of the sculptor.

Hermione’s awakening saw her suddenly flash her eyes open as if after a long sleep. She gazed around as if only now aware of the people around her. This created the impression that she had really been under some hypnotic effect and was not simply playing along with Paulina’s elaborate ruse.

She stood still, stiffly posed, and extended her hand towards Leontes, who took it and was soon embracing his long-lost wife. She similarly greeted Perdita.

The performance ended with a dance that resembled the one that had been the occasion of Leontes’ original jealous anger. The extended hand gesture in the dance was emphasised to remind us of Hermione’s greeting to Leontes when she revived.

Conclusions

It was difficult not be affected by Leontes’ brutal attack on Hermione, the savagery of which was counterbalanced by Pierce Quigley’s outstandingly funny Autolycus.

The set design did more than create great visual impact: by creating an isolated retreat for Leontes’ sixteen years of solitude, it facilitated a new angle on the story.