One of the reasons I love King Lear is because it is heartbreaking. It’s brutal: full of fingers in eye sockets, howling winds and freezing cold. Shakespeare created a devastating tale in which an aging king wanders into a storm and sinks to the wet ground as his family fights for power. Nancy Meckler’s production doesn’t always put us down in the emotional dirt with Lear, Edgar and Cordelia, but it certainly offers an image of the difficulties of growing old.
Lear is a dense play and any production is likely to leave something unexplored, but perhaps this is the case a little too much here. An attempt is made at a framing device: The Globe stage has been covered up with construction tarp, and a plywood board has been spray-painted to read ‘KEEP OUT.’ Enter the actors, carrying luggage and looking like well-worn travellers, perhaps squatters, who tear down most of the tarp and the plywood, and suddenly become the characters of Lear. Instead of playing with the ins and outs of a doubled framework, the travellers’ framework isn’t seen again until after the final bows, as they gather up their suitcases and wave goodbye well after most of the audience is already out the door. Any attempt to analyse this would be sheer conjecture.
The staging often keeps us at arm’s length from the emotional turmoil of its main characters. Meckler uses many forms of abstraction to convey the major elements of the play: Gloucester is shown to be blinded as he is shoved into a cage and spun around, the storm itself is a beautiful composition of ensemble players carrying storm lights aloft or playing a marching, rolling symphony of drums. Likewise, the final fight between Edgar and Edmund is staged with the men several feet apart, and the onlooking servants providing sound effects by banging on wooden crates. The effects are certainly poetic, but they draw attention to the theatricality in a way which makes the emotions muted, softer.
Regan (Sirine Saber) and Goneril (Emily Bruni) are corrupt in strangely stilted ways. While their politics seem obscured and muddled, and their own tragic descents feel rushed, their relationship with their father is eerily similar to that of adult children taking advantage of their elderly parent’s vulnerability while in a care home. No wonder Lear doesn’t know how to interact with them, hurling insults of frustration at them one moment, then calming down and making jokes the next.
Burt Caesar’s Gloucester similarly drifts into a strange, static performance at times. Despite this, he is a compassionate father, perhaps archaic in philosophy but the only one not overcome by deceit. Gloucester’s attempted suicide is a technically and emotionally difficult scene depicted with wonderful simplicity. Joshua James’ Edgar leads Gloucester squarely to centre stage, where he flounders and flails as he tries to save his blinded father from despair. Gloucester’s dazed confusion juxtaposed with Edgar’s helplessness is a tragic tableau.
Our only other model of compassion and loyalty, the Earl of Kent, is here played as the Lady of Kent. Saskia Reeve’s wonderful performance and the production’s insightful dramaturgy make this a very successful swap. Once exiled, the lady resembling Senator Elizabeth Warren in looks and dignity now poses as a man – a normal Londoner in khakis and a leather jacket. The interpretation is not an empty gender swap, but a skilled manipulation of Shakespeare’s language and the politics of who gets to be at Lear’s side, and for what reasons.
And then there’s the king himself. Kevin R McNally’s Lear is frequently childish, cracking jokes during official meetings, dottering about the stage, prone to fits and outbursts, and playing with a bicycle tire as he frolics in the fields of Dover. His fatal mistakes are punctuated by moments in which he grabs his chest and seizes his left arm, as if staving off a heart attack. His tragedy is less a descent into madness than a failure to accept the pains of growing old, and it is sprinkled with dotty humour rather than tragic irony. “I am old!” he cries over and over again. It becomes his shield, his excuse for his cruelty. The consequential loss of his family through his own immaturity doesn’t become apparent until the final minutes, as Lear’s world suddenly crashes down around him. McNally’s heartwrenching cries as he crumples and falls to his knees made my blood go cold.
Despite its flaws, this is a poignant approach to Shakespeare’s play, in which a simplified form often wrestles with complex content. It may not be the archetypal Lear, but it is remains a heartbreaking one.
King Lear is on until 14 October 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe. Click here for more details.