Bare rock and a glimmering darkness. Irish wolfhounds stalk the shadows. Perched uncomfortably on a rocky projection from the stage, a pale, physically debilitated Fool compulsively kneads his cheek. Finally, the lights dim, the wolfhounds wander off and the Fool dons his woolly cap, his ‘coxcomb’: the play can begin.
It has been nearly eighty years since the Abbey last produced King Lear; besides its challenges of scale and length (this production is three-and-a-half hours long, including a twenty-minute interval, and features a cast of twenty-one), the varied legacy of Shakespeare at the Abbey over those years makes it a bold choice. But in the sure hands of Selina Cartmell as director, rounded out with a cast including some of the finest established and emerging talents in the Irish theatre scene, this production is a great success.
As you might expect, Owen Roe’s Lear is unforgettable. The bloodiest scenes are bloody, the heath scenes wild and dreadful, and the pathos of Cordelia and Lear’s reunion fully realized. The set of bare rock, with a minimal frame providing an upper level and a projection – not dissimilar in conception to the set of Lynne Parker’s recent Macbeth for the Lyric Theatre, Belfast – sustains the tense atmosphere, although the moving projection from the stage can look a little corny, a little musical-style.
By turns thundering and whimsical, elegiac and brash, heavy of heart and light of foot, Roe’s Lear will long be remembered as the seminal performance it is. Some intriguing attempts in the early scenes to make theatrical magic of pagan ideas and rituals rooted in the play’s early British setting make for a lustrous, even semi-mystical scene of Lear among his deer-horned retinue, a scene to which the maddened king later returns. This is a Lear that sympathizes with the daughters, the bastards, the dispossessed, and Lear’s selfishness, the unreasonableness of his demands, are made abundantly clear. A pregnant Goneril cowers, distraught, at her father’s curse on her womb; the egotism of Lear’s love-test made visible by his choreographing of it almost in the style of The X-Factor.
Nonetheless, this is a deferential and surprisingly traditional production: the set-piece speeches are delivered directly to the audience, the formality of the court rituals offsetting the straggling on the heath. Always there are hooded figures – guards, beggars, plotters – frozen like standing stones upstage, lending symbolic gravity and a wider social context to the private tragedies of Lear’s family and court. Stately though this is, this restrained, even static style tinges some of the main characters to less helpful effect, most disappointingly Ciaran McMenamin’s Edmund. Regan and Goneril, by contrast, are brilliantly fleshed out and individualized by a flashing, restless Regan (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and a vulnerable Goneril (Tina Kellegher). The hot pace and clarity of the production is no mean achievement with a play like this. If the audience reaction is anything to go by, the Abbey has a hit on its hands.
Highly enjoyable though it is, the importance of the production lies, I think, in the new confidence with which an Irish Shakespeare is approached, and not just any old Shakespeare but arguably the most venerable Shakespeare play of them all. This new confidence is manifested most visibly in the accents, although not unfalteringly. the old myth of Irish actors not pulling off Shakespearean language is well and truly exploded. In some of the most affecting and effective scenes, Hiberno-English accents (themselves closer to the tones in which Elizabethans and Jacobeans would have spoken) lend an easy fluidity to Shakespeare’s language rarely encountered in London or Stratford-upon-Avon.
The myth does not surrender without a fight, though. One of the funnier recent explorations of the purported incompatibility of the Irish accent with Shakespeare can be found in the under-valued film The Actors. Directed by the playwright Conor McPherson and developed from a story by film-maker and writer, Neil Jordan, the opening features the profile of a soulful Dylan Moran declaiming Richard III’s ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech, only to be interrupted by his audience: an interview panel for a brand of sausage who demand that he read only what’s ‘on the card’. Moran’s command of classic Shakespeareana is dismissed by a patronising director who exhorts him to ‘give it more welly’. And the substitute for Shakespeare in this audition? An epitome of every crude, apparently guileless Irish stereotype going: ‘McCullagh’s. My God, that’s a fine lump of a sausage!’ The scene points to a perceived wisdom about the Irish and the performance tradition of Shakespeare: not simply that the rhythms and values of Hiberno-English appear unsuited to the institutionalised ‘brave’ style of playing Shakespeare, but also that Irish actors tend to be actively restrained from using their own accents when performing Shakespeare (Ulster accents excepted, recently).
Instead, they are too often guided into taking on a particular brogue of thick-tongued gusto to suit the most elitist expectations. Cartmell cleverly foregrounds this very issue: her well-spoken Kent disguises himself as a burly countryman with just the kind of begorrah-ed rural Irish accent sought for McCullagh’s sausages, an accent he keeps until the closing moments. But the confidence is not fully carried through, and ultimately this production stops short of declaring itself an Irish Shakespeare. The two key figures, Roe’s Lear and Beth Cooke’s Cordelia are, if not quite RP, still ‘West Brit’ enough to pass for the Queen’s English. The constantly shifting accents and articulation adopted by Aaron Monaghan’s Edgar, too, was troubling, although ultimately less so than his presentation as an especially guileless dupe.
The simple-mindedness conveyed in his first appearances make his subsequent highly physical appearances as Poor Tom worryingly reminscent of a certain, Beerbohm-esque tradition of a bestial Caliban. It seems something of a wasted opportunity that the actor who has played arguably the definitive Christy Mahon of recent times should play Edgar (after Lear, the character to whom Shakespeare had given the most lines) as a witless naïf. But these may be matters of taste more than serious critiques of some of the decisions Cartmell has taken.
Ultimately, this is a welcome and important new Abbey production, as thought-provoking as it is entertaining, and the latest member of a small but growing number of powerful Irish productions of Shakespeare. At the end, even the wolfhounds come out for a bow. They, too, have earned it.