That King Lear is a great play is evidenced in how many ways it can be played and still work to bring out its audience’s fears, fury, loathings, loves, sorrows, and laughs.
Laurence Olivier brought a filmed version of the play to American broadcast television in 1984. I remember seeing that broadcast and videotaping it. It told the story in an even-handed manner, strictly by the book. Foggy days and dark nights kept people in their fort-like homes and the landscape was bare but for the Stonehenge-like formations people and dogs ran around in the mist. This was ancient Britain, pre-Christian, as was the Theatre for a New Audience (“TFANA”) production this year. The National Theatre (“NT”) production that was broadcast live around the world this week was set in the twentieth or twenty-first century in what is presumably a modern dictatorship.
Traditionally Lear goes mad at his cruel treatment by his daughters and a night spent unsheltered in a wild storm. Director Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale did not go the traditional route for this NT production.
As Lear, Simon Russell Beale clearly played a man slipping into the dementia he feared, and it was that fear that decided Lear to give up his kingdom. This makes his foolishness as he divides his kingdom appear to be a noble act, even if badly done. At what point does responsibility for one’s past actions end? When he starts to lose his mind, is Lear no longer guilty of his past bad acts that we can reasonably assume from his present bullying actions played out before us from the moment we meet him? This Lear is feared. Is he the cause of Goneril’s coldness — did he force her into a loveless political marriage? And Regan’s blatant instability, her inappropriate flirtation, her ill-timed giggles, her sudden shouts, were these also due to Lear’s earlier actions? Jane Smiley theorized so in her novel A Thousand Acres.
Do, should we forgive bad men because they’ve grown old? Do we stop hunting criminals when they reach a certain age?
Simon Russell Beale is a very subtly expressive actor. After his truly shocked surprise at Cordelia’s refusal to embellish her filial love as her sisters had done, his hissy fit diminished his power in its childishness. He forced her to stand on a chair, as if on a slave auction block, humiliation compounding his cruelty, thereby proving that he is brutal with the self-centered and thoughtless viciousness of a spoilt child. While we feel for him at Goneril’s home and in his reception at Gloucester’s by his second daughter, we have to wonder how much of this he has deserved.
The NT production’s second daughter Regan behaved like a child seducing an older man, sitting on her father’s lap, kissing him, all to Lear’s delight. It was grotesque, particularly when Lear laughed as he reached out and smacked her bum the way uncouth men smack waitresses’ behinds.
The Duke of Albany is often played as quite stoical. At the NT, Richard Clothier played a more emotionally available Albany, furious with his wife not merely disapproving or disinterested. Although I generally like Anna Maxwell Martin, her Regan’s giggles did not excite as the glares and leers of Bianca Amato’s Regan had at TFANA this season. The NT Cornwall was a barrel-chested bully, who was brutal as we believe Lear had been (which is attractive to Regan, of course). Michael Nardone played him with gusto and malignity.
Stanley Townsend’s Kent could be seen as a bully as well, with Oswald being the nerd that is mocked and pushed and tripped. Oswald’s no innocent, of course (certainly not in the TFANA production), but Lear’s men clearly pick on him.
|Stanley Townsend as Kent in the National Theatre King Lear.|
Everybody loves a Fool. The Fool for TFANA was quite young and his interpretation was not interesting, but the fact that I did not recognize him as the Lysander I’d seen a few months before does say something about his ability to inhabit a character. The Fool in the Olivier production was rather frightened and ultimately lonely as played by John Hurt. The Fool in the NT production was the right Fool for this Lear, quite excellent, saucy, wise, not a “boy,” yet not as old as Lear. Adrian Scarborough’s Fool has worldly wisdom, never sounding mad as Fools sometimes do. His relationship with Lear was solid and real, making his death all the more shattering. I generally find the Fool’s death confusing because I don’t know why he “hangs himself.” Well, in this production, the most shocking and distressing incident was the Fool’s death in the hovel. When this Lear says later that the Fool hanged himself, he knew full well what he had done. If this Fool had hanged himself, it would not have been until after the crazed Lear had beaten him bloody and broken his heart as well as his head.
Playing off the parent/child story of Lear and his daughters is the parent/child story of Gloucester and his sons. Gloucester seems to have raised his sons similarly, but harps on the illegitimacy of his youngest, Edmund, right in front of him. At best this is rude, and Edmund pays him back with interest. Edgar is, to Edmund, too noble to recognize evil when it’s coming right at him, but to me he always seems a bit of a fool until he loses everything and becomes Poor Tom.
Edmund/Edgar. I’m just prejudiced, I guess. I saw my favorite Edmund in 1984 in Robert Lindsay opposite David Threlfal’s Edgar in the Olivier Lear. The Edmund in the last two productions I’ve seen were nothing to write home about. Same with the Edgar I saw in TFANA, although Tom Brooke’s Edgar in the NT production was deeply layered.
I expect Gloucester to look like Rumpole of the Bailey, since Leo McKern undertook him in the Olivier version. Stephen Boxer in the NT production does not look like Rumpole of the Bailey, and plays his Gloucester quite differently. He, too, was crueler than usual (not just verbally), less controlled. Boxer’s Gloucester was a man who has a great many right instincts and got inordinately punished by his gods (by way of Edmund, Cornwall and Regan) because of a past bad act: adultery. I heard that word late in the play louder than I’ve heard it before when the gently mad Lear spoke it to the blind Gloucester.
As in many of my theatre experiences (this is not limited to Shakespeare, it plays for Ibsen, Chekhov, all the classic works that are produced and heavily attended by people like me over and over) there were things that were marvelous in the Arin Arbus-directed King Lear at TFANA, as well as this Sam Mendes-directed King Lear at the National, so I start to think ‘give me this Regan and Cornwall from TFANA, this Gloucester and Fool from the National, this Oswald, this Kent…’ but they wouldn’t all belong in the same production, and chemistry and dynamics would change the very different interpretations.
In the NT’s large production in the large Olivier theatre, Lear’s followers seem to be a huge bunch even though there can be no more than twenty of them on stage. They’re all fit, wearing black, a bunch of rowdy, arrogant young men. Their presence in Goneril’s home can be perceived as a threat. Although we never see them at Regan’s, surely 100, or 50, or even 25 of them could readily be a disruptive force in any household.
Sometimes it’s easy to see Goneril and Regan’s points, particularly in a production set in modern times. The National Theatre’s production made these issues clear. This is not to say other productions didn’t show the same actions. But Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale may not be altogether sure their Lear is redeemed after adversity…and no one carried the bodies off stage at the end of the play. Must give us pause….
All in all, we come back to “what is this thing called King Lear?” Is it about the ages of man, from helpless infant through adolescence, adulthood, all the way to the helpless elder. Do we forgive our elders for the evils they did us when we were powerless and they empowered? Does Lear get what he deserves? To modern sensibilities, it appears his two eldest daughters go too far, but should he have 100 rowdy men following him around the countryside with nothing to do? Would we feel so much sympathy for Lear if his followers went off on a rampage raping and pillaging?
This is why plays as good as King Lear are produced over and over again. The questions it engenders are open-ended and can be explored in too many ways to enumerate. Once is not enough.
Continuing from what I wrote about Shakespeare last week, we go to see Shakespeare plays to hear them. I heard differing interesting things in the TFANA and National Theatre productions of Lear. Nobody’s “wrong.” Each production has its point of view, its jumping off place, and the execution of both the productions I’ve seen this year were very fine. I tend to think the smaller TFANA production was more in the spirit of the production in Shakespeare’s own time, but the NT production was remarkably powerful and memorable.
As Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear built its world, body by body, it grew into a remarkable whole. And I will remember Simon Russell Beale’s Lear longer than I’ll remember those of the excellent Michael Pennington or the legendary Laurence Olivier. Check this site to see if a re-broadcast of the NTLive production is playing near you: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/44084-king-lear. Highly recommended.
P.S. In my last post I referred to the role of Cordelia as possibly impossible to play. This, like all other roles, will be dependent upon how the rest of the characters are portrayed, but the one that made most sense to me — in context — was that of Anna Calder Marshall in the Olivier Lear. And speaking of Cordelia, someone sent me a copy of Garson Kanin’s novel Cordelia. It arrived yesterday with no indication of who sent it, so I thank you and look forward to reading it.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to view yet another DVD of another Lear, re-read the play (folio, quarto, conflated? I know not), and search my bookshelves for my copy of A Thousand Acres.