An apology, an explanation: some things take a long time to write.
I saw King Lear last Tuesday night, as we waited for the results to come in from over there. In the week since, my thinking about the production seems starkly divided into pre- and post- worlds, experienced at a moment of pause, potential – a ball thrown high into the air to see which side of the fence it falls – and now impossible to think about uninflected by the outcome.
I mention this because it is very key to Deborah Warner’s production. I have never seen a Lear that feels so essentially Shakespearean – so Elizabethan – which is nothing to do with costume or lighting. The design is disingenuously modern: pantsuits and leather jackets, army fatigues and scrubs, all moving against steep white walls that play as canvases to the black and white crackle of projected static. So far, so avowedly neutral.
Yet in the cast’s precise skewering of the verse, the play’s long lists of astrological portents and Renaissance omens are obsessively dwelt on, the events creak heavy under the Divine Right of Kings. Their national crisis is so obviously not our national crisis: their horrors are bastard sons rising up against fathers, a country clinging desperately to the reign of a king far gone into madness, the dissolution of a world based on primogeniture and God. Warner’s production hovers above the text, parallel to it, never quite touching, and into this gap creeps our inevitable current unease over nationalism, authority, chaos. When Rhys Ifans’ Fool howls his prophecy that “Albion will come to confusion,” we see one type of confusion and we think inexorably of another. It is a production that exploits the most fundamental mechanism of theatre for all it’s worth: the production plays out on stage, the audience breathes along with it at the same time in the same place, and into the gap between them something is poured and formed and moulded that makes a kind of sense of both then and now.
It is an approach not without its drawbacks: the design and staging is so sparse that any overly explicit image brought onstage inevitably loses some power. Simon Manyonda’s pleasingly charismatic Edmund, walking the line between craven chameleon and boyish seducer with ease, first appears in gym gear with a skipping rope. After an opening in which Lear and Daughters pull each other apart with nothing more than a well placed chair (Celia Imrie excellent as Goneril, all thin lipped long sufferance, and Jane Horrocks a middle child Regan who long ago clocked out of caring), the gesture seems glib, almost gauche. Only Harry Melling (Edgar), who settles his performance into something wrenching, an expression of an infinite capacity for suffering, manages to transfigure Poor Tom’s latter day shopping trolley and bin bag nappy into something naturally coherent.
At the eye of the storm, Glenda Jackson’s Lear is an extraordinary thing; one of those capital-g Great performances that seem somehow intoxicating, giant, intricate and precise all at once. It is – and it’s tempting to think of this as a consequence of her gender – a completely egoless performance: snarling, weary, not a hint of nobility or heroism. Her king is done with public service, a lifetime of people wanting things, and now in turn wants to sack it all off to be lazy and adored. Jackson brings the storm like a demonic Prospero, and in her great redemptive reunion with Cordelia isn’t redemptive at all – she barely registers her daughter’s presence, Cordelia’s superhumanly generous “No cause” met with indifferent, shrugging narcissism.
And Jackson’s refusal to do the part the easy way, to give us a little nice cathartic pathos to hang onto, is what the whole production does. The production offers up the play’s essential chaotic cruelty without flinching. Warner has very little time for making the play ‘entertaining’, which is about as good and bad as it sounds. The early scenes in the build up to the stuff where the play generally gets going a bit more (eye-gouging, storm etc) meander and drag (as they always do) but now there is a sense this is a natural product of people doing things aimlessly and fearfully, no grand plan or Aristotelian tragic structure to hold them in place. There is an excoriating suggestion that power is somehow pathetic: a few people scrabbling about on Dover beach – a few voters in the wrong state – and that’s how things happen. That’s how history happens.
The storm scene (the world’s most existential joke set up: a man going mad, a man pretending to be mad, and a man paid to be mad walk into a shack) is both almost unwatchable and utterly compelling, an endless shriek of loss. What did you expect? says Warner’s production. Is this supposed to be enjoyable? The production is supremely unconcerned with giving the audience a good time, almost to the point of indifference – but so is the play. Warner never tries to explain, to make the play ‘work’.
And it makes sense, too, of the last two lines – the lines that always rankle. “We that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long,” says Edgar, who has suffered as much as anyone. In this Lear, such short-sightedness and ineloquence seems natural, pat, a tabloid headline on Remembrance Day. In its flatness, it reveals its falsehood: we are young. We have seen much; we will live long.
King Lear is on at the Old Vic until 3rd December 2016. Click here for more details.