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"all my hair in knots": King Lear at the Public Theater free Shakespeare in the Park, Central Park, New York City

Review Author: Cristina Alfar [mail]
Production: King Lear (2014, Free Shakespeare in the Park — Public Theater, USA)
Review date: 13 August, 2014

What is most striking for this viewer’s experience of The Public Theatre’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear (Delacorte Theater in Central Park) is the intractable ugliness of the play. Its male characters are, perhaps first and foremost, relentlessly misogynist. The ascendance of Goneril and Regan to the throne is not objectionable insofar as they are poor choices, but insofar as they are women. In this production, directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring John Lithgow (Lear), Annette Bening (Goneril), and Jessica Hecht (Regan), with a break-out performance by Chukwudi Iwuji (Edgar), the language of the play is heightened and rendered new by actors whose facility with the language and clarity of purpose magnify the play’s ugliness, its lack of love and compassion. The play’s reiteration and revision of notions of “nothing,” its dependence on personal insult (“thou marble-hearted fiend,” “Detested kite!” “knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch,” “thou art a boil / A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, / In my corrupted blood,” “Milk-liver’d man!” “thou art a fiend, / A woman’s shape doth shield thee”) reaches the audience with clarity and violence. A lack of human connection was, probably accidentally, compounded by a microphone system that made the characters distractingly separate from their voices, separate from each other, so that communication was doubly alienated from intent, from connections to hope or desire or ambition. (Their voices also lost resonance, and it strikes me that actors do not seem to learn anymore just to project, to protect their voices with their diaphragms—much Broadway theater also uses microphones to amplify voices.) The actors moved comfortably on the gorgeous, minimalist wooden platform set (with scenic design by John Lee Beatty), against a scrim crisscrossed with long, slender rods, or dowels, on which was projected the suggestion of a castle wall, or trees and landscape and, of course, a storm with lightening. Lighting by Jeff Croiter beautifully created shifts from one location to the next as well as shifts in mood and space.

While it is traditional to see the play’s pathos as belonging to Lear and Gloucester, whose children grab so relentlessly at power that they sacrifice fathers and humanity to grasp it, this production offers little to win sympathy. Mr. Lithgow’s Lear begins the play in confidence of his choice to split his kingdom into three, and the map, spread center stage on the floor, Annette Bening and John Lithgow showed clearly his intent to give Cordelia the largest portion though he says his daughters will compete for that distinction. But very quickly, this Lear showed signs of mental instability, reaching what the actor himself calls the first “temper tamtrum” within a few lines of Cordelia’s refusal to speak (“Learning ‘Lear’: John Lithgow’s Shakespeare in the Park Diary,” New York Times, June 18, 2014). The effect is to offer credibility to Goneril’s claim that their father’s irrational decision to “cast off” Cordelia may portend future troubles with him for herself and her sister, Regan. Neither of the sisters is excited by Lear’s love contest, and while Goneril’s reply is more sure—seemingly agreeing to play her father’s game as she warms to her declaration of love— she also indicates the map on the floor very clearly as she declares that she loves him “Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare” (ISE King Lear, 1.1.57). Regan’s reply is hesitant, seemingly at a loss for words as well as of self-confidence. She can come up with nothing other than words her sister has already spoken, but her father’s clear displeasure with such repetition both frightens her and goads her on. Through the first two acts, Ms. Bening’s performance gives weight to a view of a reasonable Goneril as she grows exasperated with a rowdy group of knights whose loud and disorderly gathering can be heard off-stage. Add to this Regan’s and Cornwall’s (Glenn Fleshler) sincere request for advice from the Earl of Gloucester (Clarke Peters) and the production appeared interested in exploring both the domestic and professional hazards of taking over a business from a parent who seems to suffer from dementia.

Yet this production, at least, also demonstrated the impossibility of sustaining such a view, for while the sisters at first see eye to eye on matters of state, they soon devolve into a shabby and stupid rivalry for Edmund. Any possible explanation for Goneril’s attraction to Edmund is lost, coming out of the blue in Act 4, scene 2 without any even visual indication of her admiration for him or exasperation with her husband in earlier scenes (since there is no textual indication before this moment). The kiss between the two here, initiated by Goneril, felt sudden, as if we had missed something. Similarly, Regan’s overtures—especially in Ms. Hecht’s performance, which made Regan a tentative, insecure, almost flighty participant in ruling the nation until Gloucester’s letter is intercepted— show as weakness, as the beginning of a rivalry with her sister that was not in evidence before and could not be explained (this interpretation is also at odds with her later self-assurance in Act 3, scene 7, that begins by ordering Gloucester’s death, “Hang him instantly” [ISE Lear, 3.7.5]). As a result, each successive act made by the sisters took them further and further away from that moment of a unified, shared rulership. Moreover, the continuous onslaught of disgust for the female body and for female power expressed by Lear, first and foremost, but also by the Fool (a brilliant Steven Boyer), Albany (an unfortunately weak Christopher Innvar) highlighted what felt on this night to be the play’s stunning discomfort with female rule, with the female body as a site of authority or integrity. Lear’s thorough loathing for female anatomy brings the play’s revulsion to a climax: “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!” (ISE King Lear 4.6.128-30). During this speech, Lear sat on the ground, legs thrust out before him, slightly open. Gesturing between his legs violently, for emphasis, the rank stench and gaping blackness of a woman reflected in his face, Lear, in his furious movements, palpably brought to life one of the most consistent themes of this production.

While the production seemed to drive home the utter ruthlessness of each character, whose bonds with others were fleeting and self-interested, the women’s ruthlessness was particularly weak-minded and ridiculous. In contrast to Lear, who in Mr. Lithgow’s performance was a very old man unable to grasp where he went wrong or how things did not turn out as he planned, but whose behavior seemed logical—or at least imaginable—in light of a certain kind of agedness, the women failed utterly to convey sense in their acts, even if sense required a lack of sympathy or love, even if it—like that of the male characters—was ruthless. No indication could be gleaned (after the end of Act 3) that Edmund, for example, could assist a woman in her rulership. While Albany was clearly not supportive of Goneril’s vision—and Cornwall was dead, making Regan vulnerable and perhaps in need of a man’s assistance, authority, protection—none of this was signaled by either actress. In this light, the play came off as grotesquely misogynist, even for a viewer who has worked extensively on the play. Its total loathing for women was unavoidable in this production. Hecht and BeningAnd whether this was a matter of performance choices, directorial choices, or a text that refused to be denied, I am still struggling to decide. The text is the text, and this production performed that text, nearly (so far as I could tell) uncut, at more than 3 hours. And yet, I wonder whether Goneril and Regan had to come off as behaving, ultimately, so inexplicably and without reason, especially since, as I have said, even Lear’s “temper tantrums” became the product of old age, a concrete and almost sympathetic humanity.

Lithgow and Peters

Before I bring this review to a close, I would like to dedicate some time to Chukwudi Iwuji (Edgar). I have never seen an actor so convincing in his commitment to Poor Tom, so made for performing speeches that can be incomprehensible to an audience. Here, Mr. Iwuji spoke them beautifully, with layers of meaning and apparent references to events in the play or preceding the play’s action. Mr. Iwuji, brilliantly cast as part of a now fairly common practice of color-blind casting, made Edgar’s speeches fresh, with various brilliant backdrops projected behind him offering added atmosphere to his flight from court. A nearly full moon rose directly center stage as he determined to flee his father, having

heard myself proclaim’d;
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt. No port is free; no place,
That guard, and most unusual vigilance,
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may ’scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I’ll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky. (ISE Lear 2.3.1-12)

Choices made by the director in scene and sound, the suggestion of a forest in the distance and a valley in the foreground projected behind him, the sounds of hounds on a hunt—and Edgar’s need for an escape took on new resonance. While the idea of an Edgar who, like a slave escaping his master runs from the hounds, pushes the bounds of race and class in the play in ways that were undoubtedly incongruous with the text, and frankly inappropriate for the legitimate heir to the Earl of Gloucester, somehow—and to my surprise—Edgar’s lines (quoted above) suggested the staging. His were some of the most visually and aurally arresting moments in the play. They were also, nearly solely, the most affecting.


It is clear that this was a Lear that has left me pensive. I walked out of the theater and the park with my companion feeling strongly in need of a shower (and it was a gorgeous, breezy, dry evening in what is usually a humid and even stormy New York). The play’s relentless meanness was overwhelming. A little like Edgar, I feel all my hair in knots. But what more can we ask of theater? To walk away pensive, to spend days fretting over a play, to want to talk it over with others who have seen it, whether they loved it or hated it—that, it seems to me, is the purpose of theater.

With thanks to my companion for waiting in line for our free tickets. For more information on the production and to see photos, visit The Public Theater website.

Permanent link to full entry 12:14:22 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

Shall we not see these Daughters? King Lear at Ashland

Much of the depth of tragedy we feel in King Lear comes from our sense of the spiritual and emotional journey Lear is forced to make, long after the age when we can reasonably expect an old dog to learn new tricks. He begins the play as a cranky, egotistical, shortsighted and short-tempered tyrant. It is only when these qualities lead him to lose all he has – including his sanity – that he learns both empathy and humility. He learns, but it is too late to save himself or those he loves. Others around him undergo a similar journey. Gloucester learns through blindness that he was blind to his own faults; Edgar learns through deprivation the value of possession; Albany – depending somewhat on whether we speak of Albany [Quarto version] or Albany [Folio version] – learns to take some leadership in the name of virtue; and even Edmund, who is thwarted in his chosen journey towards power and wealth, despite of his own nature learns that he may do some good.

All these are male characters, and all, in one way or another are privileged to hold power, or to lose it. We are less used to thinking of the three women in the play as undergoing a similar kind of journey. They are the three daughters of legend and fairy tale: two evil, one good. The most thought-provoking choices in the recent production of King Lear at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland were in the characterization of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.

The production was directed by Bill Rauch, and staged in the round in the Thomas Theater. The setting was contemporary, and the effect was both intimate and, on the whole, minimalist. The opening scene, where Lear commands a love-test between his three daughters, challenged – even reversed – the audience’s expectations, largely through costuming and the non-verbal reactions of the three women. Goneril (Vilma Silva) and Regan (Goodrin Nordli) were wearing formal, colorful gowns, suitable for a solemn occasion; Cordelia (Sofia Jean Gomez) was dressed in somewhat revealing black, which, together with a visible tattoo, suggested that she was the favored, but punk-influenced and rebellious teenager. As the love-test was announced, both Goneril and Regan were clearly nervous, while Cordelia rolled her eyes, and at the moment when she was to perform, simply refused. We were reminded that youthful rebellion can be both self-aggrandizement and a kind of idealism. Her older sisters were clearly deeply shocked by their father’s consequent rage.

The brief scene between Goneril and Regan after their sister leaves, disowned and rejected by Lear, is one of the few places that the sisters are given stage time to analyze their situation. My response to this scene in the past has been to think of them as two scorpions warily circling each other, deciding when and where to strike. But this production took a different tack – one no less available in the text – suggesting that they were trying to make sense of a dangerous and difficult predicament. Goneril hints at some sibling rivalry in the background, but at the same time reacts with strong language to Lear’s rejection of her youngest sister: “he always loved our sister most, and with what poor judgment he hath now cast her off appears too grossly” (TLN 317). Regan’s response can be seen as combining something like compassion – as she speaks of her father’s age – with a backstory on his character that rings true: “’Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (TLN 318-9).

As events unfold, the production shows the sisters adopting different strategies: Goneril, in a manner characteristic of the first-born, does her best to take control of events and to organize them, becoming increasingly aggressive and ruthless as her control is challenged; her costuming changes to more masculine riding clothes. Regan retreats into a kind of manipulative narcissism, continuing to dress in feminine clothes as her actions become more extreme until they verge on a complete dissociation from feeling. She depends increasingly on drink to keep her going. This last stage device is neatly integrated into the ending of the play, where it becomes very easy for Goneril to poison her by slipping some white powder into her ever-present drink. Both older sisters undertake rapid journeys towards evil, but the production suggests that this development was not inevitable.

Cordelia’s journey is less clear. She begins by being rebellious and assertive. Then, of course, she disappears from the action for almost three acts of the play. When we see her again she is in military garb, closely following the hint in the Folio text: “Enter with Drum and Colors, Cordelia, Gentlemen, and Soldiers” (TLN 2349). The connection to the outspoken young woman of the opening scene is clear, and there is a journey in her status from the rebellious youth to the general of the invading forces she brings on behalf of her father; but there is less evidence of an internal change as she speaks to Lear in the scene I usually find the most moving in the whole play, their reconciliation. This Cordelia is more convincing in her anger than in showing affection for her father. At this crucial moment in the play she seems more kin with her sisters rather than different from them, and the result is that she does not clearly demonstrate to her father that his earlier outburst of disturbing misogyny is far wide of the larger truth of female humanity.

A feature of this production was the director’s choice to have the part of Lear performed alternately by two seasoned actors, Jack Willis and Michael Winters. Whatever the differences between the two performers, the fact that the remainder of the cast had to adjust to varying nuances of style and characterization clearly had the effect of keeping the production as a whole very much alive; I saw it close to the end of a long run. The night I attended featured Jack Willis in a strong performance that conveyed intensity without too much of the fortissimo one often encounters in the scenes where he reacts with verbal violence to his daughters – and the elements. In the intimacy of the theatrical space the effect of his control was to heighten rather than to reduce the sense of pain he communicates as he travels from the comfort of his easy chair and wide-screen television to the wilderness of exile. His loss of sanity – and parallel discovery of insight and compassion – is accelerated when he loses his Fool (Daisuke Tsuji), who has hitherto acted at times like a kind of prompter, reminding him of his need for control by shaking a puppet-Lear at the moments when his “hysterica passio” (TLN 1329) is in danger of taking over. The Fool’s death – a notorious performance crux – in this production is the result of an accident in which he is killed by Lear himself, without the king realizing what he has done.

Willis is deeply moving in the final scene when he drags Cordelia in on a tarpaulin; at the very end, when he believes he sees his daughter alive, he looks away from her body to an imagined or hallucinated image in the distance.

In the echo-chamber that is the subplot of the play, Gloucester (Richard Elmore) is dapper and vain – hence both his deeply insensitive comments about the begetting of his bastard son, Edmund, at the very beginning of the play, and the ease with which Edmund deceives him. At the same time, this Gloucester is essentially decent, and is an instinctive peacemaker in a play that has no room for negotiation: “I would have all well betwixt you” (TLN 1396). In his movement from moral shortsightedness to insight Gloucester suffers the single most horrific moment of the play in his blinding, where the physical violence was in stark contrast to the elegance of the setting in – the gracious music room of Gloucester’s castle, complete with grand piano. In a striking touch, Regan slashes the neck of the servant who tries to defend Gloucester with the jagged edge of a wine glass she has just broken. The intermission was just after this scene, with the result that a somewhat subdued audience picked its way around the edges of a stage littered with blood, broken glass, and two bodies, as they made their way to the everyday world of snacks and something to drink. Some stayed to watch attendants clean up, and carry the bodies offstage.

If Lear’s daughters have tended to be seen in black and white, in part because their initial motivations are barely hinted at, the sons of Gloucester are more clearly differentiated. Again in this production, costuming was used effectively to provide an immediate backstory: Edmund (Raffi Barsoumian) is in uniform, and it is clear that when he has “been out nine years,” this has been in military service. Edgar (Benjamin Pelteson) enters as something of a party boy, tuxedoed and semi-drunk. Edgar’s journey in the play is hard to pull off on the stage. He has to morph from his initial naivety to the nothingness and assumed madness of Poor Tom, rising again in stages until at the end he is to take charge of the “gored state” (TLN 3295). It is a structural challenge in the play that Edgar’s father is given no stage-center moment for his death. The responsibility of bringing closure to Gloucester’s role in the play falls to Edgar, and it was fitting that one of the strongest moments in Pelteson’s performance was his narrative of the moment when his father’s heart “burst smilingly” (TLN 3162). The moment of his transformation from Edgar to Poor Tom was especially difficult in this production, mainly because the stage set – a diagonal barred iron fence otherwise brilliantly used as the interior and exterior of Gloucester’s castle – provided no practical space for his soliloquy, with the result that he was banished to a catwalk in the ceiling among the stage lighting fixtures and a echoing acoustics.

Other than this one scene, the stage sets in the first half of the play were minimal, unobtrusively underlining the action. The storm scene was unexpectedly effective in the confined space of the theater. The technology of sound and lighting is such today that we take the dramatic use of these effects for granted; more surprising in its effectiveness was the way in which the wind in the storm was generated by mutes onstage holding large fans (leaf-blowers?) up to the characters as they moved around the stage, in a manner reminiscent of the puppeteers in Bunraku theater. The storm was orchestrated remarkably well, such that very little of the dialog was lost in what can be a chaotic rather than a moving scene. In the second half of the play, the stage was littered, as if post-apocalyptically, with broken pieces of furniture, presumably as a result of the destruction of the storm. This staging was less successful, as actors were at times constricted in space, and there seemed to be little use of the objects on stage to underline or facilitate the action.

The selection of a modern setting for Shakespeare has become something of a commonplace, as directors seek to provide ways of making the works relevant to modern taste. The result can at times be hit-and-miss, with the modernization offering no more than a surface connection to the audience. In this production, although I found the stage sets uneven in their illumination of the play, the costuming, was immensely effective in providing an immediately recognizable context for many of the characters. That the representatives of Lear’s hundred knights were dressed in battle fatigues made them threatening enough that Goneril’s concerns over their excesses seemed plausibly legitimate, and I have already commented on the effectiveness of the dress chosen for members of the younger generation – the three daughters and two sons.

The combination of strong direction, a consistently high standard of ensemble acting, and intelligent use of costuming to support characterization made this the kind of production that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival does best: balanced, always probing, with flashes of thought-provoking originality.

Note: links to the text are to the Folio old-spelling version on the site of the Internet Shakespeare Editions.

Permanent link to full entry 08:45:13 am. Categories: Stage Performances  

King Lear at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa 2012

The production of King Lear at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa this last May was staged with a fully indigenous cast, and was directed by Peter Hinton, a highly regarded Canadian dramaturg, playwright, and director. Hinton set the story in seventeenth century Canada, the period of first contact between Europeans and indigenous people. Clearly there were high hopes, both that the production would showcase the depth and quality of the First Nations acting community, and that the setting would bring new insights to a play often considered to be one of the pinnacles of Western European culture. Judging by the performance I saw, mid-way through the run, the first of these hopes was generally realized; the second less so.
The production opened to mixed reviews. At the core of the sense of disappointment was August Schellenberg’s Lear. Maja Stefanovska’s review of an early performance was still to a significant degree true on the later evening I saw the play:

August Schellenberg plays the old king with varying degrees of success. He’s at his best during Lear’s rapid decline. He makes a wonderful and at times funny, confused, and lost king. However, the rest of his performance lacks excitement, he fumbles over some lines, and does not take enough time to give meaning to the rest.
(See the full review.)

A King Lear with a tentative performance of the title role is unlikely to be memorable. But there were some remarkable strengths in the performance; the younger generation of actors – the three daughters of Lear and the two sons of Gloucester – were more fully highlighted, and all gave strong performances. Edgar, in particular came closer to the promise of the original title page than any performance I have hitherto seen. The title page to the 1608 quarto gives major billing to Edgar, especially in his disguise: “M. William Shak-speare: HIS True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR and his three Daughters. With the vnfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of TOM of Bedlam.” The role of his bastard brother Edmund is something of a gift to an actor – the attractive, witty anti-hero – but Edgar can too often seem merely distracting to a modern audience. Gordon Patrick White, however, created a dynamic and sympathetic Edgar whose “mad” speeches were cut enough that they did not become tediously puzzling. It was fitting that in this production he was given the last speech of the play (Folio text) rather than following the quarto, which gives it to the Duke of Albany.

Although Lorne Cardinal’s stage set was flexible and impressive – a stylized birch tree and fort – the cultural context of the setting produced little in terms of insight into the play. A good example was in Jani Lauzon’s double roles as Cordelia and the Fool. Lauzon was a wonderful Cordelia: earthy, vigorous, passionate – despite the production’s cutting of her asides in the first scene. In her dual role, there seemed to be a potential for a genuine cross-cultural fusion of the court fool with the trickster figure, implied by a costume that suggested Coyote. Ahough, as the Fool, Lauzon garnered some laughs, I felt that she was struggling with the lines, trying too hard to keep up momentum, and never sure that the language would communicate with the audience. Perhaps her sense of the role failed in part because Shakespeare’s Fool is as a largely passive commentator, whereas the Trickster is an active mischief-maker (more the role of Edmund in the play). In addition, the potential resonance of doubling the two roles was never clearly exploited in the production.

Two scenes in the play did use the period and culture of First Nations effectively. One of the most difficult passages in the play to bring off is the sequence in the storm, where modern sound systems too easily overwhelm the mere words of the actor. In this instance, after one or two fine thunder-claps, the storm was represented by six spotlighted drummers surrounding Lear and his small entourage. The drumming was sympathetically synchronized to allow the actors to be heard without straining, and the sense of the First Nation culture’s ritualistic connection to the natural world was powerful. The second effective use of cultural resonance was in one of the few places where the chronological setting was used to advantage, the duel between Edgar and Edmund: Edmund used the new European weapon, the sword, while Edgar (wearing a wolf mask) used the traditional stave, the clash creating a sense that he was attempting to sustain traditional values against those of the invaders.

Overall, the first half of the play, where Lear’s lines dominate, was slow, and there were times that the static grouping made me wonder if some of the actors were not more comfortable with a friendly camera rather than a distant, removed audience. After the intermission, however, when Schellenberg adopted a quieter, more subdued character, the performance picked up, and the final scenes achieved both tension, with a taut duel scene between Edgar and Edmund, and real pathos in Lear’s final moments.

Michael Best, University of Victoria, BC

Permanent link to full entry 09:36:37 am. Categories: Stage Performances  

Strong Leads Drive SBTS King Lear

Review Author: Robert Lilly [mail]
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Production: King Lear (2011, Shakespeare by the Sea - Los Angeles, USA)
Review date: 19 August, 2011

Staged outside and touring more than 40 location across California Shakespeare by the Sea takes on an epic task, and succeeds well. Director Stephanie Coltrin conducts a rapid and emotional King Lear. Performed outside and against the elements this show demands a high energy and good tech support. While the costumes and at times the sound left something to be desired, this show was delivered at a fever pitch and had the audience audibly gasping at its tragic conclusion.

The stage stands tall and is impressive in both size and detail. The company sets it up and breaks it down each night and audiences may come and view the quick and efficient work of the cast and crew to assemble the massive wood structure capped by a looming thunder sheet with a celtic crest reaching skyward. They may also observe the actor warm ups and mic tests along with the daunting fight call undertaken by the actors before each show in a nightly ritual. In Newport the crowd appeared to be near 1000 which is about what I have come to expect over the past few seasons from Shakespeare by the Sea supporters.

David Graham (King Lear), a veteran performer with the company is strong as Lear but it is the quartette of Graham’s Lear along with Cordelia (Katie Pelensky) , loving daughter to Lear, the Earl of Kent (Andrew David James) Lear’s constant and devoted servant, and Edgar (Drew Shirley) the betrayed hero of the play, that give King Lear its heart. Graham runs the gambit of emotions demanded by the role and compels the audience to watch him every moment he is on the stage. Likewise, the striking Pelensky offers a sensitive and heart wrenching portrayal of a daughter wronged. James’ Kent is bold, cinematic and vulnerable, bearing every injustice his master must suffer with equal forbearance. Shirley’s Edger balances Lear’s decent into madness with an evenly delivered fall from glory and eventual return. Other strong performances are given by the evil Goneril (Suzanne Dean) and the cast as a whole who, almost without exception, play this fast paced production to the hilt.

This production was produced with a Celtic undertone and the devotion detail stood out both in the direction, acting, and the production as a whole. Shakespeare by the Sear 2011 also offers Much Ado About Nothing this year.

Permanent link to full entry 02:03:35 am. Categories: Stage Performances  

King Lear, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, The Globe, London, 2 May 2008

Review Author: Peter Smith [mail]
Production: King Lear (2008, Shakespeare's Globe, UK)
Review date: 30 June, 2008

The first of four Shakespeare plays to open this season, Dominic Dromgoole’s King Lear offers hope to a jaded and despairing Globe-goer. Without the populist gimmickry which characterised most productions during the reign of Mark Rylance, this production, predicated on some excellent casting, concentrated on clear articulation, detailed but not fussy playing, and contact with the audience which was engaging rather than crassly diverting. Of the many shows I have seen in the theatre to date, this is the first that I am determined to see again.

At the heart of this production’s success was its realisation that the Globe is a non-illusionistic theatre. The production was designed by Jonathan Fensom. In the place of anything resembling a set were a pair of sliding screens which functioned, when drawn, to shield the discovery space or the doors which flank it. An octagonal platform had been erected in the middle of the yard at stage height and connected to the stage by a bridge. Two sets of steps led from this platform down to the yard floor. Both the main stage and the octagonal platform were equipped with traps (the latter used for Poor Tom’s cell). Two telegraph poles with climbing rungs stood at the downstage corners on either side of the stage and swags of greenery were draped from the tops of these back to the balcony.

The design was static and symmetrical as was much of the blocking. Frequently an actor would take a position at the centre of the satellite platform and address other members of the company positioned geometrically across the main stage from this ‘hot-spot’. The effect was frequently suggestive of a courtly formality but such obvious positioning hinted that the production was not interested in reconstructing the vagaries of real situations or conversations. Dromgoole seemed unencumbered by any obligation towards verisimilitude and stage positioning was used as much symbolically (to indicate relative degrees of political power, for instance) as naturalistically. Indeed the least successful sequence was when the production affected a laboured naturalism by having several bloodied and muddied madmen (weird companions to Poor Tom) invade the yard from under the stage and haloo and whimper at the non-plussed groundlings. Fortunately, this was only a temporary distraction.

The real strength of this production derived from its casting. Not merely were the company vocally fluent and poetically lucid – notable here was Joseph Mydell’s Gloucester – but they were physically well cast. For instance, Jodie McNee’s tiny Cordelia (whose sheer dress accented her slenderness) appeared all the more vulnerable confronted and bullied by David Calder’s Henrician monarch in long furred gown like someone straight out of Holbein. Danny Lee Wynter’s fey and whimsical Fool seemed, like Cordelia, to be physically as well as politically outsized by those around him. Daniel Hawksford was a strapping and handsome Edmund who could easily have proved attractive to both wicked sisters (Sally Bretton as Goneril and Kellie Bright as Regan). Even the fairly minor role of Oswald, was played by the weaselly Ashley Rolfe whose encounter with the grizzled and irate Kent (Paul Copley) was a comical mixture of pantomime bravado and desperate panic as the Earl pursued him and forced him to duck behind the screens like a banderillero fleeing an enraged bull.

Calder’s Lear was, if not a revelation, a refreshingly new take on the role. This Lear took a long time to go mad. His initial rejection of ‘our last and least’ (F, I.1.81) was inspired not by lunacy but by anguish. As he presented Cordelia, without dower, to France his attempted resolve not ‘ever [to] see / That face of hers again’ (262-3) forced a shudder of grief from him and as he lamented his daughters’ ‘filial ingratitude’ (III.4.14), he was shocked by their callousness rather than inwardly demolished by it. Indeed this was a profoundly reasonable, and thereby even more pathetic, old man who (in spite of the warnings of Kent and the Fool) had miscalculated rather than proved mentally incapable. As he turned to Kent, sitting in the stocks, his ‘Follow me not; stay here’ (II.2.228) was not a symptom of the blithe unawareness of madness – Kent wasn’t about to go anywhere – but a final, and comically desperate attempt to issue regal commandments: Lear was stubbornly and rationally attempting to articulate a remnant of authority. When, later in the same scene, he promised ‘such revenges on you both, / That all the world shall – I will do such things – / What they are, yet I know not’ (445-7), his hesitation suggested that this plot needed further deliberation rather than being a fissure in his ratiocination. As late as his exchange with Poor Tom, Lear spoke out of genuine concern which was eminently practical, sensible even: ‘Thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies’ (III.4.91). Even during the mock-trial scene (the inclusion of this from Q and the Fool’s earlier Merlin prophecy from F indicate the use of a composite text), the legal protocol allowed Lear some semblance of a residual rationality. Without the bald ranting insanity of so many Lears, Calder’s was finally more interesting, more inflected and complex. As he regained consciousness in the camp of Cordelia, his modestly articulated description of his scalding tears (IV.6.40) was profoundly moving – testament to Calder’s mastery of such an unintimate performance space as the Globe.

While he had chosen slightly to mute Lear’s madness, Dromgoole had given less central roles an increased prominence. Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Cornwall, for instance, presided over one of the most horrifying extractions of Gloucester’s eyes I have seen. Aided by the simplicity of the staging – Gloucester roped into a Jacobean wooden chair, stage centre, no lighting effects (obviously) – Dyer reached over to Gloucester’s face and rummaged with deliberation rather than frenzy to extract the first eye. He pulled the jelly out and threw it contemptuously upstage, wiping his bloodied hand across the front of his white shirt in an adumbration (poetic justice?) of his own stomach wound that would later lead to his death. As the second eye was extracted he goaded his wife to sit on Gloucester’s lap. As she screamed in a mixture of perverted delight and horror, tugging at the eye herself, Cornwall groped her from behind. Thus, within this single episode were moments indicative of a calm and deliberate brutality juxtaposed with a perverted delight. Poignantly, Dromgoole allowed the bleeding Gloucester to take his time, guided by the (Quarto only) second servant, to exit through the groundlings in an agonisingly protracted silence.

The mad Lear was kept till after the interval and even then he was quietly confused rather than ranting. The inclusion of Quarto’s scene 17, in which Kent and the Gentleman bring each other up to speed, provided a transition between the breakneck pace of the previous political manoeuvrings and the subsequent reunion of Lear and Cordelia. Lear sat up in a wheel-barrow bed which resembled the stocks we had earlier seen Kent occupy – a neat parallel which insisted upon an equivalence between the Earl’s physical and the King’s mental torture. Calder’s quietly spoken Lear seemed to be struggling to determine his whereabouts and the intensity of his concentration was reflected on the expressions of those who sympathetically surrounded him: this was strong company playing. The battle was effectively staged as a choreographed stomp which contrasted neatly with the violent barbarism of the supposedly chivalric duel between Edmund and the anonymous knight – here Edgar was suited in black armour with a visor masking his face.

The final scene is the play’s and this production’s pinnacle. Lear entered with the Cordelia’s corpse draped around his shoulders in a ghastly parody of a childhood piggy-back. Both wore simple white gowns. His fifth ‘never’ (F has five while Q has only three) came after a pause between it and the fourth: when it came, it was entirely rational, accepting, fatalistic. It was as though he was admitting – in just that one word – his full responsibility for everything that had happened, including the death of his own daughters without a trace of madness. As if to physicalise the sense of exhaustion, Kent slumped against one of the stage pillars in utter submission. A single female singer walked downstage to keen over the bodies. Why, having effectively staged one of the most powerful scenes in Western drama, Dromgoole followed this with the Globe’s jolly jig is one of the eternal mysteries / miseries of productions here.

Permanent link to full entry 11:45:30 am. Categories: Stage Performances  


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