For many people, King Lear is all about the absent mother, Lear’s presumably dead wife. This poor lady has become a theoretical football, tossed around by various attempts to explain the play. Perhaps she is present in the storm, it has been suggested: Mother Nature wreaking her vengeance on male folly. Or perhaps, others have thought, Cordelia’s special sweetness can be explained by the fact that she had a different mother to Regan and Goneril (Ian McKellen wore two wedding rings when he played Lear, to gesture towards this idea). In Phil Wilmott’s intense new production, which portrays Lear as a Queen (played by Ursula Mohan) rather than a King, there is no need to speculate. The mother is right there, weaving through the audience, sparkling in a black party dress and taking selfies tipsily with her daughters.
Daisy Ward’s Cordelia is arresting in the opening sequence of this production for being, initially at least, very much part of the raucous, fun-loving family group, rather than the ethereal saint on the sidelines she often is. Cordelia’s exclusion from the family seemed particularly arbitrary in this production, leaving us with perhaps a fleeting and surprising sense that any one of the three daughters could have been banished from Lear’s heart.
This sets the tone for what is overall a refreshing new look at King Lear; especially alert to the play’s textures and its ripeness for a modern re-imagining. As they tussle over the forged letter, for instance, Richard Derrington (Gloucester) and Rikki Lawton (Edmund) turn what is commonly played as a series of static set-pieces into a dynamic, nuanced exchange.
The disruption of Edgar’s very Renaissance harmony with the order of things is perfectly translated into the present day when he emerges engaged in a meticulous exercise regime and descends into drug abuse (I particularly enjoyed the transformation of the pin that Poor Tom sticks into his arm, a ‘horrible object’, into a heroin-filled syringe).
This production is characterised, too, by an insightful naturalism. Claire Jeater and Felicity Duncan never falter as the glamorous, swaggering, controlling sisters Goneril and Regan. In the windowless Union Theatre, the violence in this Lear has all of the concentrated immediacy of a lethal backroom roughhouse. Most strikingly, France’s defeat is portrayed not (as is most common) as a set of alarums and skirmishes in the far distance whilst the stage is occupied solely by Gloucester sitting under a tree. Instead it is heart-rendingly close to us: their blows shaking the table around which the audience are invited to sit and encircle the action, Edmund beats France to a pulp in front of Cordelia.
As Lear, Mohan is lyrically tender and luxuriatingly spiteful, determined to enjoy herself in her retirement and completely lost when her eagerly-awaited plans for the good life sour. Thanks to the constant presence of the Fool in surgeon’s garb, this Lear is sick and vulnerable from the start – her tragedy seems not so much a change in her character as the fact that she becomes less and less able to hide her weaknesses from others. At points, I felt that Mohan’s range was limited by the way certain significant aspects of the text were elided; this Lear seems uninterested in the huge wars in which she is directly implicated, and we don’t get to experience Lear’s startling boast, in the midst of her frail madness, about killing the servant who hung Cordelia. In Lear’s final speeches, too, the potential humour (jokes like ‘your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light’, though admittedly not immediately hilarious on the page have been known to make audiences roar thanks to the likes of McKellen) is drowned instead in a register of unrelenting sorrow. But these are small cavils at what is a tremendous and captivating Lear.
Despite this production’s tagline ‘What if King Lear was a woman?’, questions of gender are irrelevant when weighing Mohan’s interpretation of the character as a uniquely resonant one. Mohan’s Queen evokes what for many audience members will be an unnervingly familiar image – the stroppy elderly relative battling dementia, whose demands for love and help deplete the time and threaten the independence of her children. As such, Jeater and Duncan’s lifelike portrayal of the evil that springs from Goneril and Regan’s tested patience has an exceptionally unsettling quality.