Sinéad Cusack’s Kent

King Lear, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 7 & 8 October 2017

Not content with merely providing a bespoke showcase for Ian McKellen’s monumental talent, this production also created new meanings within a familiar story by casting Sinéad Cusack as a female Kent and enhancing that character’s role within the play.

The Chichester Lear came about because McKellen had been dissatisfied with the 2007 RSC production of King Lear. He had performed in large theatres that he found “uncongenially spacious” and had been obliged to shout lines that he felt would be better delivered “at times as conversation, in a theatre like the Minerva where intimacy conjoins audience and actor” (source: production programme).

His desire to play a smaller venue meant that fewer people were able to see the production and the scramble for tickets obliged the theatre to limit bookings to two per customer.

Sitting just a few feet away from McKellen’s Lear was a powerful experience, both in terms of the quality of the performance and for what it represented. McKellen has admitted that this was probably the last major Shakespeare role of his career, and the sense of an actor having his last hurrah suffused into the performance so that it underlay his character’s downward trajectory in the play.

When McKellen’s Lear told the younger actors playing his daughters that he was shaking his cares from him to confer them on “younger strengths”, the parallels with the last days of his Shakespeare career resonated somewhere deep in the background.

There is something to be said for quitting while you are ahead – and here McKellen was at the peak of his craft, particularly in his furious rages at Lear’s wayward daughters Goneril and Regan.

Shakespeare often manages to convey with precision the confused way in which people under stress jump from one thought to another, and McKellen was amazingly focussed in conveying Lear’s imprecision. The underlying paradox produced a remarkable effect in performance.

There was something almost inexpressibly marvellous about being simultaneously in the presence of the actor’s lucidity and the character’s confusion with each of these contradictory facets being felt at one and the same time with equal force, co-existing at precisely the same point in space and time but also entirely separate and distinct.

But the production was much more than a career-topping wish fulfilment vehicle for McKellen.

While the principal actor excelled in delivering a traditional Lear, from the point of view of generating new meanings within the story, the production’s most interesting aspect was its reworking and enhancement of Kent.

The director Jonathan Munby provided an object lesson in how changing the sex of a character can be combined with other reworkings of the text to create exciting new ideas.

In a significant alteration to the original, the production showed that Lear’s division of the kingdom was a surprise sprung on an unsuspecting court, who thought that Lear had gathered them together for the sole purpose of resolving the contest between the rival suitors for Cordelia’s hand in marriage.

Kent was shown to be Lear’s most trusted advisor, because only she was informed in advance of his decision. This indication of her elevated status at Lear’s court meant that her eventual revolt in the face of his unreasonableness was all the more striking, and her fall from favour all the more precipitate.

Once in exile she adopted a male disguise as the servant Caius, which enabled new meanings to be wrought from the existing text. She was also given a significantly different role in serving Lear in disguise than is commonly the case for male Kents.

The transformation of the character of Kent lay at the heart of the production’s opening sequences that reworked the original priorities of Lear’s assembly of his court.

At the very start of the performance, the lights went down on an empty stage. When they came on again, McKellen’s Lear stood at its centre resplendent in full ceremonial uniform. He held a document in his hand. He remained motionless, looking off towards the centre exit before departing through it.

The progress of the document became a key to understanding the narrative of the sequence.

The action continued with the text’s entries for Gloucester and the person referred to here as the Countess of Kent.

The document that Lear had been carrying during his fleeting appearance was now in Kent’s possession. She entered holding the unfolded document before her, reading the paper with an anxious furrowed brow, her focused scrutiny excluding every other object of attention.

She wandered stage right facing away from Gloucester as she exclaimed “I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

This entry could have been staged with both of them examining the document, but the staging instead emphasised that the knowledge contained in the document was solely accessible to Kent.

Gloucester’s next speech was divided between him and Kent to ensure that it was Kent who commented on the division of the kingdom in isolation and not Gloucester discussing it on equal terms of familiarity, so that it went:

Gloucester

It did always seem so to us:

Kent

But now, in the division of the kingdom…

Gloucester

…It appears not which of
the dukes he values most;

If Kent was the only person privy to the plan and she was facing away from Gloucester when she said “But now, in the division of the kingdom…” it was possible that this was an aside, a comment on the division that only she knew about, and that Gloucester’s lines simply ran on from each other so that he did not know about the plan. The general surprise at Lear’s announcement suggested that few knew about it.

With the introduction of Edmund over, Lear and the rest of the court entered to a fanfare of song in Latin. Desk and chairs were brought in with miniature French and Burgundian flags. These flags also hung fullsize at back of stage either side of Lear’s huge portrait.

The present business was clearly indicated to be the marrying off of Cordelia. The text was rearranged so that it dealt with France and Burgundy before anything else.

Thus Lear’s first words were:

The princes, France and Burgundy,
Great rivals in our youngest daughter’s love,
Long in our court have made their amorous sojourn *project*,
And here are to be answer’d.

This was met murmurs of approval as this was the main purpose of the occasion, known in advance by all those present. The clue was in the phrase “long in our court” which indicated that the competitive wooing of Cordelia by the two princes had been a lengthy process with which everyone was familiar. This ceremony was designed to mark the conclusion of the deal.

Lear ordered Gloucester to “attend the lords of France and Burgundy”.

But then Lear dropped his big surprise:

Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

The word “meantime” went from being the first word in the original text’s expository speech to an indication that he was introducing supplementary matters pending the conclusion of the main event, as well as hinting that the purpose of this as yet unannounced project was “darker”.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom…

As soon as he had announced this division of the kingdom, the sisters, but mainly Goneril and Regan exclaimed a loud “What?!” in tones of confusion, puzzlement and anxiety.

Clearly Lear had given no prior warning of this plan to anyone other than Kent. The absence of the impending clarifying context meant that this initial bald statement was met with consternation and disbelief.

It was only when Lear went on to explain that this division would involve the conferment of his power “on younger strengths” that a commensurate wave of relief passed through his daughters as they realised there was some benefit in this for them.

Lear’s shock announcement also thus became another example of the impulsive and unpredictable behaviour that Regan and Goneril charged him with in their conversation at the end of the scene.

Kent resigned by handing in her badge of office, which she had worn on her lapel. This resignation had greater significance because she had been the only person entrusted with his plan.

Kent’s explanation for her disguised condition in 1.4 left out much of its beginning and its references to borrowing “other accents” and razing “likeness”. She was dressed in shabby clothes with a beanie hat to hide her hair as she was pretending to be a man. This had echoes of other Shakespeare characters like Rosalind who do similar. But she did change from her usual RP accent to Irish for this transformation and so did actually borrow other accents.

She became caught up in the jollity of Lear and his men returning from a hunt. The scene’s first question and answer between her and Lear took on new meaning given Kent’s chosen disguise.

Lear asked “What art thou?” to which Kent’s reply “A man, sir” went from being the original male Kent’s sarcastic statement of fact to this disguised female Kent’s hopeful pretence of the illusion she wished to convey.

A line was added in which Lear asked him/her his name. She replied “K..K.. Caius”.

In performance this sounded just like the stuttered delivery of her assumed name. But this initial hesitancy was more likely the suppression of her natural instinct to reply “Kent”, turning the opening consonant sound “K” into the start of her assumed name, the two being helpfully similar. Like many people trying to live under an assumed identity, she found it difficult to throw off the past.

Kent did not mention her age, possibly because that also has her state that she loves women. But in other respects she acquitted herself very plausibly as a combative man.

She tripped Oswald and held him by back of the head and threw him face down on the ground to teach him “differences”.

Kent was similarly pugnacious at the start of 2.2 when she challenged and scared away Oswald with a knife.

When held to account by Cornwall for her actions, she was placed inside a metal cage which was hoisted above the stage.

This provided an opportunity to make one of Lear’s line humorous, as he pointed at her and ordered her to “stay there”.

Reimagining Kent as a woman meant that when she made herself known to the Gentleman in 3.1, she did so by removing her beanie to reveal the full flow of her hair.

Once Kent was in a position to help the distressed Lear, the production’s reworking of the character made her more attentive and solicitous than is the case for most male Kents.

After the storm scene, Gloucester brought Lear, Kent, Edgar and the Fool into an outhouse, which was being used as an abattoir. Animal carcases hung from hooks besides cow and pig heads.

Kent lovingly attended to Lear and turned on an electric bar fire to warm him as he was laid on a camp bed. Her entreaty that Lear should “lie down and rest upon the cushions” was made to look like classic female nurturing.

Lear used the animal heads to represent his wayward daughters. A cow’s head stood in for Goneril while a pig’s head became Regan in his eccentric farmyard court of justice. As each of his daughters was found guilty in absentia, Lear took the offending animal head and threw it away, aided by all the others apart from Kent. She tried to intervene and stop the madness by taking the animal heads from them. But she failed.

Continuing the theme of Kent’s heightened concern for Lear’s welfare, she became one of the party that went searching for him at Dover and was one of the first to find him in 4.6.

Kent was given two of the lines spoken by a Gentleman: “You shall have anything” and “You are a royal one, and we obey you.”

Kent’s presence in 4.7 was therefore neatly explained by her presence in this previous scene.

Kent made herself known to Cordelia, but said she wanted to remain in disguise until a moment of her choosing. In this context, Cordelia’s “Then be’t so, my good lord” was a jocular reference to Kent’s assumed male identity.

In many productions, Cordelia remains near to Lear as he recovers. In this version, Kent was also close at his side. She looked on with a constant air of solicitude as father and daughter were reunited.

She held Lear as he got out of bed and tried to kneel to Cordelia. Once he was sitting up in bed with his legs hanging over the side, Kent put slippers on his feet to make him more comfortable.

Staged in this way, Kent almost became a second Cordelia.

The extent to which this production was as much about Kent’s dedication to Lear, as Lear’s own personal journey was shown in the final scene.

Kent sat behind Lear and eased him backwards as he expired, his “Look there…” fading gently into nothing.

The fact that Lear did not react when informed that this female Kent had been in disguise as a male Caius accentuated his declining grip on reality.

Taking her companionship with Lear to its logical extreme her veiled reference to undergoing an imminent journey because “my master calls me, I must not say no” could be seen as Kent identifying so closely with Lear that she had to follow him wherever he went, even into death.

The twin plot lines of Edgar’s shadowing of his father Gloucester and Kent’s shadowing of his master Lear came to resemble each other more closely than usual because of the enhancement of Kent’s role and the change of sex in the character.

A question arose as to the precise motivation for this Kent’s actions. If Edgar was motivated by bonds of kinship, was Kent motivated solely by a sense of duty, or was it something more personal? The production did not attempt to provide a ready-made answer to this question and the thought space thereby provided allowed the possible options to be considered at leisure.

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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.

Jonathan Pryce’s Lear

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”.

Soliloquy

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.

Syllable

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).

Shelter

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.

Cliff

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.

Conclusions

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.

King Lear – Globe to Globe

King Lear, The Globe, 18 May 2012

The Belarusian production of King Lear from Belarus Free Theatre was an angular, spiky concoction that used provocative imagery to arouse strong feelings. It also contained a subtle theme based on the text’s bird references.

Something was clearly amiss within the world of the play right from the start as two central characters were revealed to be disabled. Gloucester (Pavel Garadnitski) entered in a wheelchair with his son Edmund (Aliaksei Naranovich), accompanied by war veteran Kent (Dzianis Tarasenka) who propelled himself around kneeling on a low trolley.

The court assembled on two benches with Goneril (Yana Rusakevich), Albany (Yuri Koliada), Gloucester and Edmund stage right, and Cordelia (Victoria Biran), Burgundy (Siarhei Kvachonak), Regan (Maryna Yurevich) and Cornwall (Alex Shyrnevich) stage left. The Fool (Pavel Arakelian) sat at a piano upstage left and Kent positioned his trolley next to the piano.

The bent and hunched figure of Lear (Aleh Sidorchik) hobbled slowly through the centre doors pushing a trolley supporting a suitcase. Then with a flourish and a cackle, the apparently old man threw off his shawl to emerge as his real, vigorous self, complete with a shiny armoured gauntlet on his right hand.

Instead of merely speaking their love for their father, Lear’s daughters were expected to sing it to him.

The elfin but steely Goneril had a long white coat that contrasted with the jet black of her punky hair. She sang a cheesy song and danced almost like a child for her “daddy”. Her obedience was rewarded not with an allocation of land, but with actual soil that Lear scooped out of the suitcase and loaded into the lap of Goneril’s dress.

She hoisted the front of her garment, exposing her bottom, and then sat down again clutching the soil in front of her stomach within the fold of her dress. This apparent digestion of the soil could have been prompted by Lear’s later instruction, related to the reallocation of Cordelia’s share: “digest this third”.

Regan reversed her sister’s colour scheme in a black coat with short, backcombed blond hair. She sang in the same way as her sister and duly collected her allocation of soil.

While her sisters had been singing for Lear, Cordelia had been sitting close to Burgundy and kissing him. When called upon to sing, her first response was to play air guitar. After prompting, she sang half-heartedly and flashed her backside childishly.

Lear showed his displeasure by playing jarring discordant notes on the piano as he disinherited Cordelia. The king scuffled with his disobedient daughter and his armoured gauntlet hit her in the face, giving her a bloody nose.

Kent was sat on his trolley next to the piano and objected to Lear’s actions, leading the king to silence him.

Regan and Goneril went back for the extra scoops of soil, Cordelia’s third of the kingdom, which were poured in plastic containers. When the soil was gone, Lear filled the suitcase with metal cups, which were also distributed.

Surrounded by his obedient daughters, Lear held his right arm out straight in front of him and invited them to kiss his gauntlet. Kent protested again and was banished.

In the light of its later use (see below), the metal gauntlet seemed to be represent a hawking glove. Lear regarded himself as the keeper of his daughters and the gauntlet symbolised this proprietorial relationship. While it was obviously not possible for them to perch on the gauntlet, Lear did expect them to show their obedience by kissing it.

Burgundy abandoned Cordelia as she no longer had a dowry. This cleared the way for the aged King of France to make his rickety way towards Cordelia and express an interest. Lear mocked him by imitating his faltering voice and bent back. Cordelia was then married to France with the blood from her nose still caked on her face.

Edmund slapped the letter that would discredit his brother on the ground and explained his plan. As Saffron Walkling has pointed out, Edmund used a syringe to draw blood from his arm, which would be used later as part of his subterfuge.

His father Gloucester obliged Edmund to hold a bedpan in front of his wheelchair into which he sprayed a stream of urine while he read the letter. His fury at Edgar’s apparent disloyalty caused Gloucester to strike furiously at Edmund with his belt. He forced his son’s head down into his lap.

He gave Edmund a book with a large crucifix attached to the front cover, which Edmund sat reading when Edgar and a friend entered joking, laughing and smoking a joint. The stoned pair tried to get Edmund to join them in a smoke and give up his studious contemplation. But Edmund merely warned his brother about their father’s anger at him.

Lear’s knights rampaged through Goneril’s house and she looked on despondently, before instructing the ponytailed Oswald (Yuliya Shauchuk) not to respond to Lear’s requests.

The container of soil that Goneril had obtained from her father was clearly visible with flowers growing out of it.

Kent took off his war medals and somehow regained the use of his legs to disguise himself and offer his services to Lear. He was soon kicking the disrespectful Oswald around and cutting the servant’s ponytail.

The Fool’s jesting with Lear was conducting using the piano to provide a musical setting to his taunts. His response to the arrival of Goneril was to bare his bum to reveal the letters K and L tattooed on each buttock.

Goneril confronted Lear with his unruliness. A line of drinking cups was hastily arranged on the stage for her to scoop up and throw unceremoniously into a trunk, inviting Lear to pack and leave. The violence of this gesture invited a similarly tempestuous response from the King, who tore the coat from her back, held it at one end and beat it repeatedly on the ground.

Lear held his gauntlet like a falconer and blew on a whistle at around the point that the English text has him accuse Goneril saying: “Detested kite! Thou liest.” This was the first point at which the precise significance of the gauntlet became plain. It made sense in the context of the text’s other bird references: his “pelican daughters” and Cordelia and he singing like birds in a cage.

After telling Edgar to flee, Edmund used fake blood to simulate a cut to his hand in order to get his father’s sympathy. Gloucester was so angry at Edgar that he actually fell out of his wheelchair and spent some time flailing about and hitting the ground with his belt. This image of impotent rage was very forceful and disturbing.

Kent insulted and fought with the effeminate and cowardly Oswald, whereupon Regan and Cornwall secured his feet and legs between two pairs of rolled umbrellas and left him centre stage with his legs in the air, his body bent at the waist at a right angle.

Lear and the Fool discovered Kent and he was quickly released. Regan kissed Lear in greeting and then also kissed her sister Goneril when she arrived. As the two sisters faced Lear in formation, the Fool played piano and they waltzed towards Lear united in their desire to diminish the number of his followers. Lear’s anger was expressed by taking hold of them and spinning them round so that their feet left the ground before finally throwing them off.

The sisters said that a storm was coming. They held up umbrellas and then walked backwards as the dishevelled Edgar crawled forward along the ground beneath them.

Edgar was nearly naked and completed his look by reaching into the rear of his loincloth and smearing his hair with something unpleasant he found there. He practised his ravings as Poor Tom.

A French woman paraded to the edge of the stage and pouted like a model to tell us that an army is on way from France.

The storm scene was brilliantly simple and incredibly effective. A massive blue tarpaulin was spread across the stage and held at waist height by a number of balaclava-clad figures. Lear stood behind it on a box. The sheet was wafted up and down, creating a lot of noise and also a tremendous draught of air that could be felt quite forcefully in the yard.

Lear then walked over it to the front of the stage and leant forward at a 45 degree angle with Kent pulling tight on the cords of his coat to stop him falling on his face. This created the impression that he was leaning into the winds, which he invited to blow and crack their cheeks. Water was poured onto the tarpaulin. Lear stood in the middle becoming drenched as the whipping movement caused the water to fly around him.

This very simple device created an extremely powerful and convincing storm scene that many modern theatres with expensive stage equipment would find hard to beat.

Edgar appeared from under the sheet wailing. He was completely naked and sat facing away from the audience as Lear discovered him.

Deciding that he wanted to emulate “unaccommodated man” Lear stripped all his clothes as did Kent and the Fool, who now revealed the “God Save The King” tattoo on his back. All four of them climbed under the sheet like a blanket, but their haste meant that there were brief instances of full nudity.

Gloucester entered with a torch to offer them shelter at which point they stood up and hunched under the same sheet which now represented the shelter. Goneril and Regan appeared briefly at the sides as Lear conducted their mock trial. The bitter Lear kept emerging from under the tarpaulin inadvertently exposing himself. After this the interval came.

The second half began with Edgar sat on the piano outside Gloucester’s house.

Gloucester was wheeled in as a prisoner and blinded by Goneril, Regan and Cornwall by the simple device of his eyes being marked with ink behind his huge glasses. He was then tipped out of his chair. Gloucester lashed out at Cornwall, who fell to the ground as he released soil from his hand onto the ground. This was the first instance of the production’s death symbol, which interestingly featured the symbolic representation of the land that Lear had allocated among his daughters.

Most of the action showing the development of the rivalry between Goneril and Regan over Edgar was cut. The complex triangle was dramatised after the final battle. But at this point we did see Regan send Oswald with a letter for Edmund.

Edgar found Gloucester, who asked to be taken to Dover, specifically to the edge of a cliff. He stood carrying Gloucester on his back stage right, symbolising their journey. At the same time Cordelia sang a song by the piano stage left expressing her hope that Lear could be cured of his madness. This was a rough equivalent of 4.4.

The sincerity of this singing was meant to contrast with the insincerity with which she had sung when asked to do so by Lear at the beginning.

Our attention shifted back to Edgar and Gloucester, who simply let Gloucester drop off his back to represent the cliff fall. Edgar, pretending to be a different man at the foot of the cliff, then tended to Gloucester.

King Lear appeared in just his underpants, a coat and a straw headdress. He held a bird’s nest in his hand. The nest was revealed to contain an egg which he broke against his forehead. He removed the headdress, which turned out to be another bird’s nest, and placed its clutch of eggs in a line on the ground. After popping the nest headdress on Edgar, Lear went along the line of eggs breaking each one in turn.

Given the bird theme already established by the hawking gauntlet, the fact that Lear’s madness also had an avian component was significant.

Gloucester knelt by Lear’s side and kissed his hand to welcome him.

A team of doctors entered. But Lear evaded them by insisting on his royal status and then darting away at great speed.

Oswald tried to kill Gloucester, but Edgar defended his father and killed Oswald. In the confusion, Gloucester came to rest on the back of his neck with his feet in the air. Edgar took the letter from Oswald before dragging him offstage, briefly kissing him, before returning to set Gloucester the right way up.

The recaptured Lear was brought onstage in a wheelchair and awoke to see Cordelia. Dressed in an elegant dress, she sang to him with a glass of wine in her hand.

This song was significant. Cordelia had earlier refused to debase herself by singing childishly and insincerely for her father. Now she was singing to him as an adult to an adult, thereby establishing the sincerity of her feelings for him. The text of the play invites us to compare the content of Cordelia’s words with those of her sisters. But with feeling expressed through song we could also compare the style of expression.

The final battle was staged using a red tarpaulin to cover the opposing forces as they tussled beneath, watched through binoculars by Albany on the balcony. The huge red sheet was pummelled from the inside: it was like watching Ayers Rock having a fit.

Once the armies under the tarpaulin had stopped moving, Edmund emerged followed by Goneril as they conducted their dalliance. Goneril went back underneath and Regan appeared, enabling Edmund to canoodle with her. This neatly summarised the plot point contained in the cut scenes.

This was followed by an entirely invented scene that showed the imprisonment of Lear and Cordelia. Each was tied to a separate stage pillar while their guards sat downstage making an inventory of their personal effects, including Cordelia’s stilettos and pearls and Lear’s gauntlet. The two were taken and placed together, enabling Lear to comment on the pair of them being like birds in a cage. Edmund then entered to personally order their execution.

Cordelia was hoisted up and then hung. No rope was visible, so the execution was suggested by her jerking motion, which caused her top to fall away exposing her chest. The same was about to happen to Lear when the countermand came from offstage, saving him from being killed. Lear was led away.

The rest of the cast entered and sat on benches exactly as they had done at the start. Goneril danced around Regan and the pair hugged, each holding a wine cup. Regan collapsed and soil fell from her cup, symbolising its poison and marking her death

Edgar showed himself to Edmund and fought with him by spinning him round until his feet left the ground. Edmund then dropped soil from his hand as he died. Kent wheeled in Gloucester in his chair and narrated how he had died, with Gloucester also letting soil fall from his hand as he collapsed in the chair. Goneril’s suicide quickly followed with soil falling from her cup.

As the dead lay slumped in their seats, the Globe fell into complete silence as Lear staggered through the centre doors, pushing the dead Cordelia on the same carriage he had used in jest at the start. But whereas his earlier decrepitude had been feigned, here his physical wreck was the genuine result of his grief.

Lear spoke to Cordelia very softly and, with faint echoes of the ending of The Winter’s Tale, Cordelia revived and kissed her father.

Lear slumped releasing soil from his hand as he fell. Cordelia rose slowly and stood behind the carriage with her back to the audience. By this point the stunned silence of the audience had become even more intense.

Kent joined Lear the other side of the carriage and let soil fall from his hand symbolising his suicide as he followed Lear into death.

After Albany’s closing words the three sisters joined together and held hands to sing the dead march that closed the performance.

Conclusions

This remarkable production was staged using the simplest of props, but packed a powerful punch as its tragic end mirrored its comic beginning.

Large, well-funded theatre companies should ask themselves why so much of their expensively produced output fails to meet the standard set here by the Belarus Free Theatre.

Shakespeare found in Danish translation

Niels Brunse, Nancy W Knowles Lecture Theatre, The Globe, 18 April 2012

The second in the Globe’s series of talks on Shakespeare in translation took the form of a conversation between Danish translator and writer Niels Brunse and the Globe’s director of education, Patrick Spottiswoode. The talks are the educational backdrop to the Globe to Globe multi-language complete works festival.

Niels Brunse is on the way to becoming the first person to translate the complete works of Shakespeare into Danish.

He grew up in Elsinore, the famous location of Hamlet, and was first introduced to Shakespeare by a comic book version of Romeo and Juliet. Along with the rest of the population of the town, Niels became enraptured aged 14 by the 1964 BBC/DR co-production of Hamlet that was filmed on location in the castle at Elsinore.  This television version, with Christopher Plummer as Hamlet and Michael Caine as Horatio, formed Niels’ primary experience of seeing Shakespeare acted.

He dropped out of university, but succeeded in forging a career as a translator and writer.

A commission from a Danish theatre company to produce a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream led to a chain of similar commissions from other companies.

After translating several of Shakespeare’s plays, he realised that not all of them would be translated as a result of theatre commissions. So to fulfil his ambition of translating the complete works, he approached the Bikuben Foundation and received financial support to translate the entire canon of plays and sonnets.

Niels outlined a brief history of the translation of Shakespeare into Danish, starting from the early translation of Hamlet by Johannes Boye in 1777, through to the first translation of the (then) complete canon by Edvard Lembcke between 1861-73.

Most of these translations were for the page not the stage, whereas Niels Brunse, starting as he did with theatrical commissions, has always had a practical approach to translation.

He normally translates an entire play and leaves cutting to directors, but for a translation of Richard III he was given the parts required for translation and produced a Danish version that was in effect pre-cut.

The Danish language lends itself to the translation of Shakespeare because it has the same pattern of stresses as English so that iambic pentameter and blank verse can be rendered.

However, Niels found that the preponderance of monosyllabic words in English created a problem, as these would often have to be translated by longer Danish words. This caused difficulties in rendering the complete sense of verse lines, as omissions were necessary to maintain form.

He tries wherever possible to respect the division between prose and verse and also to retain rhyme in his translations. The prose/verse division was especially important, he thought, because Shakespeare’s theatre was not a theatre of scenic effects and sets, but of language. The prose/verse distinctions between characters were in effect part of their costume. The rhyming couplets at the ends of scenes were important signifiers of exits.

Niels begins the task of translating a play by consulting the Arden or New Cambridge annotated versions together with secondary reading. He also owns a facsimile edition of the First Folio. A read through results in him staging the play in his mind.

Obviously, plays not translated for stage commissions can be completed with less time pressure.

Niels courted controversy with his translation of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, which he rendered:

“At være eller ikke, sådan er det -”

Translated back into Engish this becomes roughly:

“To be, or not, that’s the way it is – ”

He said that he received angry phone calls for having translated this most famous of speeches in this particular manner, but he was prepared to defend his version. His translation uses the first sentence as an introduction to the rest of Hamlet’s ideas, so that the remainder of the speech is an amplification of what Hamlet means by “the way it is”.

It was pointed out that his translation resembles the Q1 version “Ay, there’s the point”, but he said that this similarity was not intentional.

To date, Niels has translated a third of the plays and two thirds of the sonnets, the latter proving particularly difficult with their multiple layers of language. He is encountering similar problems in his current project, a translation of Love’s Labour Lost for the Bikuben edition.

He rounded off the talk with an anecdote that demonstrated how Shakespeare can be improved by translation, or at least given a new twist.

In King Lear the disguised Kent finds himself in conversation with a Gentleman at the end of 4.3, saying to him “When I am known aright, you shall not grieve lending me this acquaintance.”

The Danish for “known” is “kendt”, which is pronounced the same way as the character’s name. This enabled Niels to translate this phrase so that the first part of it read both as a faithful version of the original English but also as a cryptic statement of the disguised man’s true identity “When I am Kent again”.

The subtlety and cleverness of this effect, made possible by the characteristics of the Danish language, is undoubtedly something Shakespeare himself would have appreciated and possibly envied.

Shakespeare found in translation indeed.

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.

Wind stops play at the Donmar

NT Live: King Lear, Greenwich Picturehouse, 3 February 2011

Oh, the irony! Derek Jacobi stood in the middle of the Donmar stage and solemnly intoned Lear’s challenge to the winds to blow and crack their cheeks. Not long after, the real tempest raging outside rose to the occasion and did its worst: not by raising the waters of the sea to drown the weathercocks of the local steeples, but by knocking the uplink dish on the roof of the theatre out of alignment causing the live transmission to break down.

The performance was halted until the dish could be fixed. It restarted after a few minutes from the beginning of the cliff top scene, giving us a second chance to see it.

But this unfortunate incident should not be allowed to overshadow either the brilliance of the production or the way in which the Donmar proved itself to be a perfect venue for live theatre broadcasting.

The pre-show shots of the audience showed how the interior of the auditorium had been painted in the same whitewash effect as the wall, floor and ceiling of the stage. This was a striking feature when viewing the play at the Donmar, so it was good that the broadcast conveyed the same effect.

The small Donmar auditorium was perfectly suited to filming. With the entire centre stalls given over to cameras and the audience fitted into the side stalls and gallery, the space effectively became a television studio for the duration of the broadcast.

Sat close to the cast, the cameras could film using a zoom angle that approximated to that of the human eye to produce very natural looking images. When filming from the corners of the stage, the entire space was viewable with some of the cast dramatically foregrounded.

Whereas the National Theatre requires a boom-mounted camera to range across the stage and provide close-ups, at the Donmar tight shots of individuals and groups could be achieved with a modicum of zoom. A single camera mounted on the front of the gallery provided the occasional shot from above.

The intimate, plain and brightly lit stage was a kind of reverse black box: a white box of unremarkable features that allowed concentration to rest on the performances.

The quality of the camerawork was very good with only one missed shot.

The performance began quite abruptly as the director cut away from some pre-show chat to the sight of Gloucester, Edmund and Kent striding onto the stage. This was intended to reproduce the theatre experience in which the first scene begins unannounced while the audience is still chattering away.

However, the broadcast did lose one key feature that was obvious to Donmar audiences: the sweating and reddening of Jacobi’s face in moments of anger. Sat in the auditorium, you could not fail to notice his skin tone changing to traffic light red as he blustered; in the cinema, even in HD, this did not come across.

Close-ups were used to highlight the intimacy of Lear and Edgar (as Poor Tom), with whom Lear showed an immediate fascination that soon prompted jealous, attention-seeking behaviour from his Fool.

Use was also made of over the shoulder reaction shots, with a distant character being brought into focus reacting to a conversation among two characters closer to the camera.

The director also gave us a close-up shot of Gina McKee unbuttoning her top in order to retrieve her necklace before using it to adorn Edmund.

But the necessity of choosing one particular view sometimes means the loss of some subtle moments when, as an audience member, you can flick your gaze effortlessly from one part of the stage to another and put together a composite picture of action and reaction.

This was the case in the scene at Gloucester’s house where Regan, after initially refusing to speak to Lear, entered to confront him. The King began to draw the Fool close to him for emotional support. But seeing his daughter arriving, he instinctively withdrew from his companion as if ashamed of appearing weak in front of her. This moment in performance provided a clue to the character’s pride and vanity, but was not conveyed by the broadcast.

In the theatre it was possible to focus one’s attention on Lear and his Fool as well as the approaching Regan. A live broadcast, however, cannot change views with the same agility as the human eye.

The fluidity of the production, with characters entering rapidly on the two downstage walkways, kept up the kind of pace that television and cinema audiences expect from edited productions. In this way, an effect designed to be pleasing in the auditorium also produced a satisfying result in the broadcast.

Despite the technical problems, the first Donmar broadcast was a great success. This live transmission from the venue was more rewarding than those I have seen from the cavernous Olivier Theatre.

It was also nice to have Emma Freud, the thinking man’s Davina McCall, doing the presenting. She is a natural for the job because she seems genuinely excited at seeing the productions.

Solving the puzzle of Jacobi’s King Lear

King Lear, Donmar Warehouse, 1 January 2011

Derek Jacobi’s performance of King Lear contained a trail of teasing indications as to the character’s inner life. The audience was given sufficient material to attempt a solution to a question posed in the play itself: “Alack, why does he so?”

In some productions the character of Lear is presented on a take it or leave it basis. He behaves in the way he does, and an audience is expected to acquiesce in the character’s actions as simple, spontaneous reactions to events without further speculation on what drives them at a deeper level.

This rendering of Lear, however, was an invitation to engage in some forensic psychology. And this engagement resulted in his character appearing ultimately more sympathetic.

Setting the scene

The set consisted of wooden planks roughly painted in white. They covered not only the floor, walls and ceiling of the stage but also the back of the auditorium and the front of the circle.

Decking out the entire space the same way might have been intended to create an atmosphere of inclusivity. But a theatre as intimate as the Donmar provides that closeness anyway. The two downstage walkways leading off the thrust stage also brought the action near to the audience as characters entered and exited along them. There was only one upstage entrance, on the right.

The simplicity of the stage was matched by the sparseness of the stage properties, which consisted of a map, a stool, a set of stocks and a chair.

Lear’s first words were revelatory: “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy” was spoken by a frustrated Lear as an impatient instruction. It was possible to sense immediately the tension in the man. With this Lear there was no real calm before the storm; the distant rumblings of what was to come could be heard right from the start.

After rolling the map of Britain out onto the floor, he paused as if struck by a sudden flash of inspiration. He then explained that he wanted his daughters to praise him. This showed him to be impulsive. Rather than having the entire occasion planned in advance, he was making up significant parts of it as he went along.

Having made a precipitate demand of his daughters, he then insisted on being kissed on the cheek by both Regan and Goneril before they launched into their expressions of devotion.

As well as being impatient, frustrated and impulsive, he was now shown to be needy. A picture of Lear’s inner life was created within a few dozen lines with great economy.

Cordelia stood downstage right apart from her sisters as they revealed themselves to be variously sly (Goneril) and gauche (Regan). When Cordelia’s turn came to speak, Lear kissed her unbidden thereby indicating her status as his favourite.

As Lear’s youngest explained why she had nothing to say in praise of her father, Kent (standing downstage left) laughed at Cordelia’s joke about Goneril and Regan swearing all their love to the father despite being married. This foreshadowed his imminent intervention in Cordelia’s defence.

Lear then blew his top as his impatience, frustration, impulsivity and unsatisfied neediness turned to anger.

Red wrath

Jacobi can do anger. His face changed colour and glowed red like a traffic light with sweat trickling down his forehead in a display of emotion that caused many spectators to be genuinely concerned for the actor.

At the height of his wrath, Lear stood sideways on to Cordelia but could not bring himself to look at her. However, in a moment of impetuous temper, he did approach her and snatched the coronet from her head, which he then presented to Cornwall and Albany as the coronet they were to share between them.

His fury continued unabated during the subsequent horse trading over Cordelia’s marriage. When Burgundy asked Lear to confirm his previous offer of a dowry, the king stood toe to toe with Cordelia and said “Noth…..ing” inches from her face.

As Goneril and Regan had their chat at the end of the scene, Edmund entered upstage right, causing the sisters to go into a quiet huddle to continue their discussion. At the end they exited past him all smiles, as Edmund, a handsome bad-boy type, took centre stage for his soliloquy.

Gloucester paused before getting to the key sentence in the fake letter “If our father sleep till I waked him” as if reading it silently to take in its full significance. He then read it aloud as the most shocking part of the letter. Edgar was portrayed as neither bookish nor foppish, as is sometimes the case: he was quite unremarkable.

Offstage sound effects provided a noisy backdrop as Goneril and Oswald discussed the riotous behaviour of Lear and his followers. This generated sympathy for her position, as we could hear that her complaints were not exaggerated.

More insights into Lear’s character came when he was first seen together with his Fool. Played like a dour, disdainful Northern stand-up comedian, the Fool had a scruffy motley outfit, cap and face paint. Despite the Fool’s mockery, the interaction between them was the first in the play that Lear found rewarding. His initial pleading for the Fool to be present could be seen not as a demand for entertainment, but an attempt by Lear to re-establish a connection with his emotional lifeline.

Goneril was cold and calculating when confronting her father about his behaviour. She appeared to hide her true feelings behind a mask of calmness. Lear’s explosive retort about her being a “thankless child” was passionate but controlled. This meant that when he told Goneril that he could resume his kingly power over her (“I’ll resume the shape which thou dost think I have cast off for ever”) this seemed a real possibility.

Lifeline attached

More depth to the relationship between Lear and his Fool came in the next scene (1.5). Admitting for the first time that he had done Cordelia wrong, Lear made his plea not to turn mad taking the Fool’s hand and placing it over his abdomen. They exited together with the Fool’s hand still held in that position as if tending a wounded man. The Fool’s jocular parting couplet was cut so as not to undermine the pathos of the moment.

The spot Lear needed to be comforted would later be indicated as the seat of his “rising heart”. This physical support was a visual representation of the emotional support Lear received from his Fool.

Edmund fought with Edgar half-heartedly at the start of act two, and after cutting his own hand, pointed Gloucester in the opposite direction to that Edgar had taken when fleeing.

However, Edmund did fight convincingly in the next scene when coming between Kent and Oswald. Kent was placed in the stocks at the back of the set with his feet wide apart. The stage lights dimmed as Edgar entered and began to assume his disguise as Poor Tom. He smeared his face and hair with mud scooped from the crack between the stage boards and practised his mad voice saying “Poor Turlygod, poor Tom”.

On finding that Regan had put Kent in the stocks, Lear’s Hysteria passio came over him again.

The Fool sat next to Kent and adopted a similar feet apart stance to him, before pulling an invisible cord that drew his feet together.

A very significant clue about Lear’s inner life then appeared.

After returning from an unsuccessful attempt at speaking to Regan, Lear experienced another bout of his “rising heart”. But this discomfort did not last long as the Fool’s joke about eels in a pie seemed to sooth the king’s troubles. In an attempt to seek further solace from him, Lear moved closer to the Fool as if about to embrace him. But when he saw Regan enter, he instinctively drew away for fear that she might witness his dependency on the Fool’s support and the weakness that would imply.

We could now add vanity to the list of Lear’s character traits.

Regan was head-pattingly patronising towards her father. Unlike her sister Goneril, she was not clever or cunning enough to disguise her real thoughts. It was this, perhaps, which prompted Lear’s extremely sarcastic mock begging for “raiment, bed and food”.

The entry of Goneril downstage right and her taking Regan’s hand, set off another of Lear’s fits of anger. Jacobi again turned bright red.

Storm brewing

Act three saw the beginning of the storm, which was indicated by loud sound effects and the flashing of lights under and behind the set shining through the gaps between the boards. In the small space of the Donmar some mighty speakers, some behind the audience, were used to create a really loud and all-encompassing storm.

The dialogue in 3.1 between Kent and the Knight allowed us to see the storm in action with the sound and lighting effects used to the max. However, the entry of Lear and the Fool in 3.2 produced something of a surprise.

After a slightly awkward mimed struggle onto the stage, Lear was beset by the same storm that had assaulted Kent. But it fell silent as Lear began to speak. He was caught in spotlight and whispered his “Blow winds…” speech with his voice amplified to ensure it was clearly audible.

This was a good solution to the problem faced by noisy stagings of the storm: the sound effects often drown out what is some of the most potent language in the play.

The noise and flashing lights returned when the Fool spoke and then fell silent again when Lear resumed. This indicated that Lear was somehow in a separate, liminal world to everyone else: his internal mental torment expressed in his speeches was capable of blocking out the external tempest.

Starting from Lear’s third speech describing “this dreadful pudder” the storm effects continued over his words and he spoke normally. The hovel was indicated to be just offstage via the downstage left walkway.

The Fool’s prophecy was cut to maintain the fast pace of the production, which was marked by rapid scene changes with full use being made of the walkways to get actors on and off the stage quickly.

New best friend

After the brief scene showing Edmund’s betrayal of his father and the discovery by Lear and others of the hovel, we got our first glimpse of Edgar transformed properly into Poor Tom. He wore the customary loincloth and his hair and face were besmeared with mud.

Lear took an instant interest in him. The speed and intensity of his fascination was deliberately signalled to the audience by the way he sat next to Poor Tom.

Edgar’s first disguised encounter with Gloucester caused him to pause in shock, possibly out of fear of discovery. When Lear sat and talked with the “learned philosopher”, Edgar looked up to hear his father talking about him.

After a scene in which Edmund was wonderfully insincere and dishonest in betraying his father to Cornwall, the ceiling boards were lit up to suggest the interior of the outhouse where Gloucester had brought Lear and his group.

Lear was now so totally absorbed with Poor Tom that the Fool was telling jokes in a fruitless attempt to draw Lear’s attention back onto him. Given the intensity of the bond they had once enjoyed, Lear’s new-found fascination was upsetting to him. The Fool’s pitiful attempts at recovering Lear’s favour were touching.

The trial of Goneril and Regan saw some initial signs of Lear’s mind abstracting itself from reality. He leant down to talk to some imaginary little dogs, then opened and closed the invisible curtains of an imaginary bed before falling asleep on a blanket.

The interval came at the end of this scene 3.6.

Bring on the lychees

Goneril and Edmund’s departure was quickly followed by the capture of Gloucester and the disturbing sequence heralded by that chilling phrase “Bind fast his corky arms”.

The tension of the scene was enhanced by one of the servants holding back some of the others at sword’s point.

Regan plucked Gloucester’s beard while he was standing. In fact, he remained standing throughout his ordeal: he was not placed in a chair, but rather tied standing at the back at the stage. This made his comment “I am tied to the stake” literally true.

Cornwall’s vow to set his foot on Gloucester’s eyes was fulfilled when he plucked the first one out, slung it to the floor and then stamped on it. Cornwall and Regan hid Gloucester from the audience and under this cover the actors did some hasty face painting to simulate the injury.

The wounding of Cornwall by his servant and the stabbing of that servant by Regan were staged in one composite movement. Regan repeatedly drove the blade home in rhythm with her punchy line “A peasant stand up thus?”

Gloucester’s second eye was plucked and thrown against the back wall of the set by Cornwall, who only then began to show the effect of the wound he had received. It is possible that someone in such a situation might have a delayed reaction of that type.

When Gloucester appeared led by an old man at the start of act four, his shirt was covered in blood and he was sporting better wound make-up, having been backstage for a while. Poor Tom took over the job of escorting Gloucester, who followed his disguised son with his hand on his offspring’s shoulder.

In the next scene, Goneril began her seduction of Edmund by talking quite huskily. She unbuttoned her top talking of “a mistress’s command” and hung a chain around his neck. After inviting Edmund to decline his head and look at her chest, he took the hint and then the initiative by forcefully embracing and kissing her.

They separated and Goneril said that the kiss “would stretch thy spirits up into the air” with a gesture suggesting that his potency would satisfy her desires. This highlighting of the bawdy connotations of ‘spirit’ then set the following word ‘conceive’ into a similar context.

Her reference to “a woman’s services” became the tail-end of a series of erotic references and gestures.

The entry of Albany prompted her to turn away from him, do up her top and say “I have been worth the whistling”, which suggested that she did not think that her husband found her attractive. His subsequent words confirmed this.

The nutcracker

Her husband’s harshness was instantly punished as Goneril grabbed him by the nuts to deliver her “milk-livered man” rebuttal. Albany fought back by grasping Goneril’s hair and pulling her down. Once on the ground she spat out her “Marry, your manhood, mew!” as a parting shot.

Cordelia’s return to England and Regan’s jealous questioning of Oswald led us into the cliff top scene in which Gloucester attempted to end his life. Edgar crouched upstage left and muffled his voice in order to seem further away.

Lear entered using the downstage left walkway wearing a floral coronet and Jacobi treated us to an absolutely fantastic display of distracted behaviour. This was madness rather than senility. But nevertheless it seemed that Lear had not really lost his mind; he had merely relocated it to a happier place.

He drew an imaginary bow when acting out the drawing of a “clothier’s yard”; he toyed with and then stamped on his imaginary mouse; and he mimed arrows finding their target “I’the clout” with the whizzing noises indicated by “Hewgh!”.

Gloucester recognised the king, knelt before him, causing Lear to comment “see how the subject quakes”.

Lear acted out the various characteristics of “yon simp’ring dame” including the snow between her legs and her girdle, the area below which “is all the fiend’s”.

Lear’s gestures became even more obscene when talking of the dark sulphurous pit. He repeatedly tucked his hand into an imaginary orifice before leaning forward and pulling apart its entrance only to be repelled by the imagined stench. Gloucester’s request to kiss Lear’s hand understandably prompted him to wipe it first to rid it of the smell of mortality.

Not having registered that Gloucester was blind, Lear held his hands in front of the man’s eyes to represent the ‘challenge’ he wanted him to read. Lear also danced round Gloucester when talking about the judge and thief changing places.

As ever, the audience laughed to hear Lear talking of the “scurvy politician” who should get glass eyes, despite the fact that this is not a contemporary joke.

The king ended up on the ground when asking Gloucester to pull his boots off. He sat with Gloucester and played with his hair, prompting the comment “This is a good block” looking at the top of his head. Lear then padded around on his knees with his hands representing the horses shod with felt before pounding the ground forcefully shouting ‘Kill’ six times.

The king rose from the ground when Cordelia’s men came looking for him. He made them kneel before running off the downstage left walkway.

Reach out and touch

Another touching moment between the estranged Edgar and his father came when the young man used the word ‘father’ to him in the sense of ‘old man’. Gloucester must have sensed something about the way Poor Tom was behaving towards him, because he immediately reached out and felt his face. The gesture accompanied the line “Now, good sir, what are you?” This put Edgar under intolerable pressure to reveal his true identity, so his subsequent continuation of the deception was painfully wrought.

The entry of Oswald with his sword drawn made Edgar assume a slight accent, but nothing as strong as suggested by the text. After killing Oswald, he retrieved and read the letter he was carrying.

Cordelia chatted with Kent in 4.7 after which Lear was carried in on a chair, one of the few props to be used. Cordelia knelt in front of him as he awoke. Lear made it obvious that he had recognised Cordelia a short while before actually saying that he thought “this lady to be my child Cordelia”. He almost got out of his chair, but his daughter crouched lower than him.

Kent’s exchange with the Gentleman in which he comments “Report is changeable” on the rumour that he is in Germany, was cut.

Edmund and Regan got close at the start of 5.1 just as Goneril and Albany entered. Goneril was unnerved by this proximity. As Albany and Edmund went to leave off different downstage walkways, Goneril tried to follow Edmund downstage left, but Regan called her back. She acquiesced so that the two sisters both exited downstage right.

Edgar entered to deliver the crucial letter to Albany explaining the plot against him by his wife and Edmund.

Edmund’s soliloquy on his women troubles amused the audience greatly, but no one dared call out an answer to his repeated questions as to which he should choose.

Offstage sound effects replaced the march of Cordelia’s forces over the stage. Edgar laid Gloucester on the ground for the duration of the battle and escorted him away after Lear and Cordelia had been taken prisoner.

Bound together

The prisoners were brought in by the victors with their hands bound. Despite this, Lear was able to lock his hands with Cordelia’s for the touching speech about them being like two birds in a cage.

Edmund was quite cocky when explaining his disposal of Lear and Cordelia, but Albany made it plain that he was not going to stand for such impertinence. The jealous bickering over Edmund between the sisters began and Regan showed the first signs of being unwell.

The sequence ended with Albany’s brilliant confrontation of all three of them. Goneril’s ‘interlude’ comment was sarcastic but controlled. Regan fell properly sick and was carried off.

The Herald’s lines issuing the challenge to summon Edgar were spoken by Albany. Edgar’s defeat of Edmund prompted Goneril to kneel over her lover. Her husband then joined her and showed her the treacherous letter before presenting it to the dying Edmund. Goneril snatched at it, as indicated in the text. Albany restrained her by once again pulling on her hair.

Goneril’s defiant “Who can arraign me for it?” was slightly underplayed. She did not sound like a tyrant in the making. She grabbed Edmund’s dagger before running off upstage right.

Edgar told the story of Gloucester’s death and leant over Edmund to stress the final words in that speech, emphasising that their father’s heart had “burst… smilingly”. This forceful delivery was perhaps intended to explain Edmund’s sudden change of heart and conversion to goodness, marked by his statement that Edgar’s words had moved him.

Edgar’s long story about Kent was cut. The earl simply entered and was greeted with “the banished Kent”, words taken from Edgar’s reply in the text to Albany’s question as to the subject of his story.

Regan and Goneril’s bodies were not brought out onto the stage in order to save space. This created a final tableau focused on Lear and Cordelia.

Lear’s howl as he carried Cordelia in was not the low moan of a dying man, but a shriek that pierced the audience to the core. It was a kind of primal scream that seemed to express not only the pain of his favourite daughter’s death, but also all the tension generated by events up to that point.

Puzzle unravelled

The subtle hints about Lear’s character that had been peppered throughout the production, showing his flaws and weaknesses, meant that the sense of pity aroused here was intense.

This Lear was not an ogre brought low, but an ordinary mortal whose only distinguishing feature was that he had the power to make others suffer the consequences of his own inadequacies.

The king laid Cordelia on the ground and cradled her. Lear still seemed quite strong and healthy at this stage, making his remark about fighting with his “biting falchion” seem quite believable.

Kent looked at Cordelia when referring to one that Fortune hated. Lear picked up her limp arm and let it drop several times to show that she was dead. He had a button on his shirt for Kent to undo.

Kent sat behind Lear and cradled him as the king audibly gasped his last breath and expired. Those left alive lamented the dead pair and the stage lights dimmed. A standing ovation greeted the cast when the house lights went up shortly afterwards.

Conclusions

The enduring memory of this production was obviously Jacobi’s performance. It ran like a piece of precision engineering, and like all products of hard work it appeared to be essentially effortless.

The precise emotional payload of the final scene was in part the result of a directorial decision to accentuate Lear’s vulnerability.

The production is understandably sold out and I am looking forward to seeing the NT Live broadcast of it on 3 February.