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January 2017

Review: King Lear

Bill Fry

In the original sense of the word, as Shakespeare himself would have understood it, King Lear must surely be the most dreadful of all his plays; it certainly contains his most horrific scene.  And yet it begins so casually.  In the other great tragedies there is tension from the word go, but here the play starts with what Donald Trump would call ‘locker-room talk’, when the Earl of Gloucester, jokes almost boasts about the illegitimacy of his second son. 

In the Hampstead Players’ production, this calm appeared to continue into the next scene. When David Gardner, as the king entered and broached to his three daughters his plan for a competition in flattery, he seemed to regard the mad scheme as little more than a party game.  It was only when the youngest princess, Cordelia, touchingly young in the person of Megan Britton, refused to play by his rules that we were given the first hint of the coming storm, but even when he disinherited her, his rejection of his favourite daughter was pronounced with the quiet implacability of an absolute monarch.

Of her two suitors, the Duke of Burgundy automatically withdrew his offer on learning that Cordelia had lost her dowry; Mikhail Goldgaber played him with a deprecating smile and realistic shrug.  He had no need to be apologetic; King Lear seemed better pleased with his desertion of the princess than with the romantic constancy of Nicolas Holzapfel’s King of France, who carried her away to be his queen.  After all, Lear was intending to punish his daughter, and for the purpose of discipline France had been a less convenient instrument than Burgundy. 

The only voice of protest came from the Earl of Kent, as whom Simon Young allowed himself a burst of feeling, restrained by respect and quickly silenced when King Lear condemned him to exile.  It was only three scenes later that he returned in different clothes and with an assumed voice to serve the king pseudonymously as Caius.

Before we could see the result of the king’s decision, Shakespeare returned to the subplot, as we were taken into the confidence of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, who had hardly spoken till now.  Adrian Hughes invested him with an ironic charm that made his vengeful plans for his elder brother and father seem almost acceptable.  It was not difficult to believe that each of them would separately be taken in by his tender show of concern.

Now that their father had given his kingdom to them, his two elder daughters each took up a very different attitude.  In this production they did so in wholly contrasting styles; Margaret Pritchard Houston immediately showed us a frankly formidable Goneril, whereas Emma Lyndon-Stanford as Regan was above all an elegant lady with a sophisticated air.  Of course, neither of them had forgiven Cordelia for being favourite daughter, and it must have been bitter for them to find that she would be a queen while they were only duchesses. 
Their ducal husbands were even more sharply different from one another.  Jolyon Bohling’s Albany was a sympathetic, gentle creature, anxious to discourage but quite unable to restrain the excesses of his wife, Goneril.  Cornwall, on the other hand, in a frightening performance by Jon Waters, exceeded Regan in cruelty; was he utterly without feeling as he gouged out Gloucester’s eyes, or did he actually find pleasure in the sickening business?

But what a play this is for vivid characters!  All too often, so as to alienate audience sympathy, actors wildly camp up their performance of Goneril’s servant Oswald, but Edward Smith showed us that this was quite unnecessary.  It sounds a horrid thing to say, but he was utterly convincing as a slippery and treacherous coward who could manoeuvre his employers into satisfying his own ill will.  Getting Kent put in the stocks is only the beginning of the damage he inflicts. 
(Mention of the stocks brings up the whole problem of playing Shakespeare in modern dress, which is not exactly what this production did.  It would be more exact to say that the setting was recent but fantastic.  The costumes suggested some date after 1900, but the props had been modified to meet Shakespeare halfway.  There was actually a wheelchair at one stage, and, instead of the stocks, Kent was roped into a large cage. On the other hand, the men carried not swords but concealed daggers, which were brought out for the fights.)

It was after finding his man in the stocks that the full force of David Gardner’s performance exploded upon us, and the great storm that engulfed him and his followers as they wandered on the heath seemed like a blinding and roaring symbol of his pain and anger.  Once again Shakespeare amazed us by refusing to let the scene be pure tragedy.  They came across Edmund’s legitimate half-brother now fleeing from injustice and disguised as a madman.  The nonsense that poured out of his mouth was often hideously funny, but it was the comedy of nightmare.  Matthew Williams once more showed his astonishing versatility in his zany performance of this startling role.

Watching the tragedy and uttering a shrewd commentary but powerless to stop the relentless advance of the Juggernaut, is Gaynor Bassey-Fish as the saddest Fool we were ever likely to see, always right but never believed, an ironic Cassandra in motley, a profound simpleton who never lost the clarity and innocence of a little child. 

There were a number of minor parts for John Willmer, Simon Malpas, Sheena Craig, Harlequin, Simon May, Catherine Martin and Cristina Bancora, some of them appearing as several different characters.  And so the unforgettable story rumbled onward to its terrible conclusion.  There was the pathetic comedy of the Earl of Gloucester trying to jump over a cliff and only succeeding in falling ridiculously to the ground.  In his desperation Bill Risebero’s Earl reacted very differently from the king; he showed no anger at all but patiently blamed himself for all his own misfortunes.

So the tragedy rolled on, as one after another of the evil characters came to their violent deaths.  For a moment the joyful reconciliation of Lear and Cordelia seemed to hold out the hope of a beautiful future, but then came the heart-breaking moment when the bewildered old king found that his only truly loving daughter had been treacherously hanged.  With nothing left to live for, he died.

David Gardner must be thanked and praised for facing the challenge of putting on this production.  He skilfully adapted the text to a mere two and a half hours without giving us any noticeable sense of loss, and, as well as playing the titanic role of the king, he co-directed the play with Annie Duarte.   Of the big four tragedies King Lear is the least often performed, and it is not difficult to see why.  It is a play that fairly tears the heart out of you, and it may be true to say that the better it is performed, the worse you will feel at the end.  For nearly two hundred years it was only shown in a version revised by Nahum Tate and given a happy ending, until in the 1830s William Macready went back to the original text.  We certainly had an uplifting evening in November, but there was a price to be paid in our shock and suffering.

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