Anthony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester
The worst returns us to laughter — Edgar, a moment where the production’s clear speaking made a line shine through which is relevant to what is happening center stage in US newspapers on Trump’s “team” today
Dear friends and readers,
Last night I was privileged to watch an HD screening of a production of King Lear from Stratford-upon-Avon at the Folger Shakespeare library. It’s the fifth HD-screening of a Shakespeare play for me, and I take the occasion to praise the Folger for this program and hope aloud to others the library continues to to participate in these screenings. Each one of the five has provided me and those in the audience with a renewed contemporary dramatic realization of Shakespeare: particularly alive and deeply instructive have been the Love Labor’s Lost and Merchant of Venice. I did learn that Lily James is a great actress from Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet (“a few good experiences” — scroll down, just a bit). I still lament I had to miss Kenneth Branagh’s Winter’s Tale with Judy Dench as Paulina. The Folger itself on average is staging at most two plays by Shakespeare a year (the others are often modern adaptations of Shakespeare or some other supposedly related contemporary play). So by screening say three productions from the UK Shakespeare himself is kept before us.
It’s an occasion because Gregory Doran’s Lear (he was the director) is getting more attention than many RSC productions. These occur regularly and why this one is singled out I don’t know. One review from TLS will do, partly because Abell does not say much about the production except that it has to cope with the bombast of the play. There was magnificence in the way the play’s hieratic and crazed excruciating lunatic scenes were done, the scenes as a whole as living emblems before us, a dignity was maintained even in the most intimate moments
Sher with Graham Turner as the fool
Natalie Simpson as Cordelia and Anthony Byrne as Kent leading Lear away after she and he have made up
But the experience was not as deeply moving for me in the way it has been before. I usually weep, occasionally almost uncontrollably, and and didn’t at all this time. They were too controlled, too aware of themselves as enacting the super-respected Tragedy. The actors all seemed so delighted to have been given their part.
A case in point was the opening scene: it is hieratic, and let us tell truths (dismiss adulation even for Shakespeare), and admit the scene resembles the static and wooden hieratic scenes in other of Shakespeare’s dramas, e.g., Merchant of Venice (the casket), the one in Pericles (where the suitor is in danger of his life).
Two reviews of an Old Vic production with an 80 year old Glenda Jackson making another astonishingly effective performance (recalling her first appearances as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade so many years ago) as Lear suggest the route taken there was quite different: a Samuel Beckett stripped down modernity (Fintan O’Toole in the NYRB; Matt Wolf in the NYTimes; Susannah Clapp in The Guardian).
The problem (as I see it) might be a lack of courage (or originality of interpretation), a fear of the audience, a reverence for the place they were playing in, too much self- and audience regard.
Shakespeare means to show us the mean pathologies of family life taken to a frightening ferocity, with each “child” a step along that road. Simpson is even worse: she hardly breaks her serenity across the play. Simpson played Cordelia so blandly: if she is not given some anger or resentment in the opening scene (as she was not), there is no psychological sense to what has happened. I’ve seen this reluctance before. The conventional Cordelia never not loves the old man. Then why did she refuse him at the opening?
I felt Turner was going through the motions of the fool’s speeches, not meaning them, careful lest we not get all the words. The wicked sisters were wholly unoriginal. Most of all there was nothing abandoned about Oliver Johnstone as the broken, abandoned, utterly distrusted betrayed child in Edgar; he was too studied.
The director and costumer reinforced the play’s artificiality as a kind of compensation, a guarded wall of costume.
Some intriguing moments: It was interesting to see Edmund so underplayed, understated by Paapa Essieddu, almost semi-comic, but it didn’t fit in at all. Nia Gwynne as Goneril needed to be in another melodramatically emotional production: she was effective, but, except for a moment where Lear seems to hug her so tightly he is trying to destroy her uterus or chest, she had no match anywhere. It’s a testament to the vivid thereness of a long career that Sher managed to give Lear a feel of a real individual looking out of his eyes. The best moments were where he was permitted to react naturally in an intimate or direct way to another presence on stage (with Gloucester, with Goneril).
Very effective Shakespeare’s drive down to utter degradation, misery, writhing madness in the scenes on the heath and in the hovel — not so much the individual (which is all I have promotional photos of) but the scene as a whole, the larger stage conceptions. I felt also that the age of the two men, aging itself, its vulnerability, its needs were central to what was moving in the experience of this production. But then I am old myself and identified as an aging parent. I would have loved to be able to see Glenda Jackson as Lear (photo from NYRB):
Shakespeare often carries himself in less alive or good productions, and that happened here too. Who can deny the horror of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes. You just need to do it feelingly. The long passage spoken by Edgar recreating a frightening height when well-spoken is evocative poetry. About a quarter of the Folger audience missed these scenes because they occurred after the intermission. It is a curious phenomenon how audiences seek to or just automatically respond to something immediately contemporary. So the least reference to corrupt politicians or anything that smacked of moronic or mindless hypocrisy got a laugh. The play’s real themes about say the importance of one’s status and respect of others, as in the famous bellowing of Lear over the putting of Kent into the stocks seemed to fall on blankness.
As a lover of Shakespeare I enjoyed the production almost as a dramatic reading. Only once in all the 45 years or so I have been going to Shakespeare plays (I began at age 17 when I went to the Papp productions for free in Central Park, NYC) have I left a production. So, I encourage all who read this to go and have written this to bring out into the discussably open the danger that these “screening around the world” productions do not succumb to self-censorship or the self-puffery of praise they will get automatically from some reviewers.
A feature for the intermission of the HD-screening was about the super-expensive gilded costume made for Goneril in the opening scene. Much money was doubtless spent. You can glimpse the dress in this enlarged photo:
Other wonderful photos of on the RSC site.
I am worried by the (in effect) advertisement for the coming HD-screened production of The Tempest with the great actor Simone Russell Beale as Prospero when we were shown the technological marvel of the blue mask that will be part of his costume. For this reason I have written this critical blog.