Tag Archives: King Lear

“The Madness of King Lear”

at C, Friday 17th August 2012

*Written for http://www.StageWon.co.uk. Published here: http://stagewon.co.uk/news/view/edinburgh-the-madness-of-king-lear-c-venues-review-august2012/*

Perhaps it was a joke which I didn’t get. It may have been, but then the whole audience missed it too. Perhaps The Madness of King Lear is a highly intelligent postmodern comment on avant-gardism in theatre. I doubt it though. Instead, it seems to be little more than two middle aged men performing a pseudo-intellectual, sub-GCSE piece of nonsense.

It’s a very basic and ill-thought premise; the story of King Lear is told using only Lear’s scenes, focussing on his descent to madness. This on its own would be forgivable, but awful ‘dance’ and ‘mime’, with no thought whatsoever, makes the show unwatchable. The silent scenes show very little skill except being able to swirl in circles or float hands around like a mystic. I understand that the mime is intended to reflect Lear’s madness, but instead it only showcases the performers’ ineptitude.

Leofric Kingsford-Smith and Shakti are barely any better at speaking verse; they declaim loudly into the small venue and show little understanding of the text. The emotions remain constant and, though Lear descends into madness in the original, here he is presented as mad from the beginning, which is never really justified.

In all honesty, I found Ira Seidenstein’s direction blatantly disrespectful, not only to us as an audience but also to other performers who use physical theatre and mime well. Thousands of performers are masters of their craft but their art is simply trampled all over here, and this company believe they can replicate it without any work or thought. The presentation of these ideas without any control or effort is nigh-on offensive.

A dreadful ‘soundscape’, complete with what sounds like tearing paper, the word “sexy” and wind noises, is completely distracting and does nothing to add to the play. One particularly painful moment sees the lyrics of a song mimed. Another asks us to say “Lear” over and over again. These instances alone are bad enough, but mixed with the rest of the performance they render The Madness of King Lear one of the worst pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.

“King Lear” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Thursday 17th May 2012

I have never experienced a deeper silence at the Globe. As Lear wheels on his executed daughter and mourns her passing, everyone stops moving, stops breathing even, and seem to synchronise their heartbeats in order that we can comprehend more fully the enormity of the situation played out in front of us. For a minute at least, London seems to stop for this experience to take place unencumbered by external factors.

What lies at the heart of the Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear is a defiant sense of passion, and the freedom to express feelings no matter what. Naturally, this is helped by our knowledge of the company’s background, but what comes through loud and clear is the importance of speaking out; only once the characters in this production have made an attempt to put their thoughts into spoken words to they achieve some kind of happiness.

Vladimir Shcherban’s production presents us with an utterly broken state, which punishes those who fight against corruption and causes its population to turn mad. The company is careful not to show us black-and-white portraits, as our sympathy constantly shifts; no one is completely good just like no one is completely evil.

Nicolai Khalezin’s adaptation plays freely with Shakespeare’s original, intercutting additional scenes (such as Cordelia singing about her father) and changing the emphasis in the last few scenes so we watch the demise of the leads. Once again proof that Shakespeare is not sacred and his that his texts can and should be adapted in order to present specific ideas.

There is an urgency in the ensemble’s performance which heightens the sense of passion (though sometimes it’s difficult to hear them). The cast has been pared down to its bare essentials in order to tell the story more clearly, and although some may complain of the inaudibility of the actors, I found that the juxtaposing of loud choruses with quiet speeches underlined the message of the people having power. Pavel Garadnitski’s Gloucester, though young, does a fine job of portraying the anguish and loneliness of this man, aided by the fact the stories of Edgar and Edmund have taken a back-seat to make way for the three sisters. Victoryia Biran’s Cordelia is not the quiet, waif-like creature she is often portrayed as, instead preferring a more sinister approach in order to be on par with Goneril and Regan. They are played by Yana Rusakevich and Maryna Yurevich respectively, and preside in an utterly self-interested sphere, so much so that their relationship verges on incestuous. At the centre of it all is Aleh Sidorchik’s  arrogant Lear, whose decent into madness comes extremely early and who is less concerned with the love of his daughters than cold, hard power, which only serves to make his final realisation all the more painful.

This production shows a superlative understanding of the importance of imagery in theatre. Nice ideas like using real earth to demonstrate the delineation of land and playing with the concept of mental and physical ability reach their climax during the stunning storm scene, using only a large tarpaulin, some water and a couple of long coat tails. It’s as good a storm scene at you’ll see at our subsidised powerhouses at a fraction of the cost. In an intelligent twist, Shcherban brings back the idea during the battle scene but substitutes the blue tarp for a red one. This, coupled with the high-pitched moans of a saxophone and Belarusian poems by Andrei Khadanovich, makes for a chilling finale.

It’s difficult to do this production justice in one review; the sheer dearth of ideas and intensity of the final scenes is difficult to put into words. It’s a remarkably brave and determined production, and though it is deeply tragic there is also a pure optimism discovered in the reappearance of the bodies in the final image. This feeling of hope is exacerbated by the tension released by a company who has to perform in secret in their home country having free reign in the most public of theatres. We know, like Kent, that awful pasts can be confined to the shelves of history if the masses come together to share their passion.

“King Lear” by William Shakespeare

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 16th March 2011

One would expect that after a year of performances a production would generally improve somewhat. We imagine performances have time to mature and problems are ironed out. It is a shame, therefore, that David Farr’s production of King Lear still remains somewhat stale, even though it has gained an extra dynamic in its transfer from the Courtyard to the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

It is an interpretation which never really made much sense; this is an Albion which has “come to great confusion”, with an array of costumes from various period sitting among furniture from various periods lit with everything from strip-lights to flaming torches. This is ostensibly a world which cannot understand itself, but rather than heightening an understanding of the text, it seems at time to detract from it, as we wonder what the characters’ motivations are in this mixed-up kingdom. It just doesn’t compute.

That said, however, in true David Farr style, it does manage to show a state in the middle of collapse. The final moments of the first half show are some of the most impressive, and the storm scene is striking. This is mirrored by the littering of bodies across the stage as the performance ends, showing that as soon as an infrastructure is destroyed, the lives of people will follow not long after. Jon Bausor’s set shows a state in decay and is lit superbly by Jon Clark. Keith Clouston and Christopher Shutt’s music and sound also show discordance, but here is the issue; Farr’s interpretation never shows enough coherence for us ever to become engaged.

This isn’t helped by the ensemble’s performances, which, although strong, never truly excel. Tunji Kasim’s Edmund is nothing short of a wet flannel and Sophie Russell’s Fool is dogged by the ghost of Kathryn Hunter. Greg Hicks is technically strong in the title role, but fails to emote and show his normally impressive range. I still hold that he is ten years too young for Lear, especially in the light of Jacobi’s recent showing. Katy Stephens as Regan offers some redemption, as does Darrell D’Silva in the role of Kent, but the actors across the board seem to be as confused by the on stage world as we do.

This isn’t a bad production, but one which never really lives up to its potential. A strong company of actors is never truly stretched and a stunning design team seem to be steered in the wrong direction. The new RST shows itself to be impressive, however, proving to have perfect clarity and injecting energy onto the thrust stage from the audience, but this is not in itself enough to save the show. Granted, Farr’s production has justification in the text, and a world with no cohesive elements does make sense, but without sign-posting it is hard to care. As a consequence, actors, direction and audience all become as confused as each other.

“King Lear” by William Shakespeare

at the Donmar Warehouse, Thursday 30 December 2010

Some plays are cemented in our minds as being epic, sprawling stories which could not be done justice on small stages. We may imagine them in huge spaces with dozens of extras and fancy scenery. King Lear may be one such play. It’s many characters, big themes and brutal wars suggest a play suited to big stages. And it is. But, as Michael Grandage has proved, it’s just as sensible to put it in a small area with a small cast, thus teasing out the humanity, forcing us to look at the micro rather than the macro.

While many productions look at the political elements of the play, or consider violence and all manner of other themes, Grandage takes it back to basics. Simple costumes, simple set and unpretentious performances come together to highlight the emotions in the play. The actors are put centre stage, rather than showy visuals or an overly-ambitious ‘concept’.

Christopher’s Oram’s whitewashed wooden set creates a space which can be both claustrophobic and open, without the use of unnecessary props. The most brilliant aspect of this set is that whenever it is splashed with colour – Gloucester’s blood, for example – it stays there for the duration, serving as a reminder of what has gone before. Neil Austin’s lighting design and Adam Cork’s sound are again straightforward, epitomised in the beautifully sedate storm scene, in which white light blazes through the cracks in the roof and a gentle wind swirls throughout.

All this would be useless, however, if it wasn’t for the exquisite acting on display. Especially engaging are Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell as Goneril and Regan who together portray headstrong women and at times demand empathy; they are just as misguided as their father. Gwilym Lee as Edgar is also impressive, slipping from princely nobility to feigned madness with ease, and Alec Newman’s Edmund packs a worthy punch.

Nevertheless, for all the superb decisions made by the cast and crew, it is Derek Jacobi in the title role who holds the show, and, for the most part, the audience’s attention. Entering quietly in Act One, there is already a feeling of sobriety about his posture, and vocal irregularities suggests his world is already crumbling. In the second half, Jacobi comes into his own, and his portrayal of Lear’s madness is simply heartbreaking. He has reverted to childhood, oblivious to his family and friends until the last. There have been few moments as touching on stage in the last year.

This is a Lear for all time, refusing to be boxed into a certain period and retaining within a humanity relevent to all. Grandage’s skillful direction is beautifully understated, and it is only at the end we realise the “weight of this sad time”. Jacobi’s performance is the one that will be remembered, however, and rightly so. You’ll be lucky to find a better Lear in the next decade.

From Shakespeare’s Sonnets to a Ginger Aussie

Yesterday the Royal Shakespeare Company announced its season of events to get the punters along to the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre when it opens from 24th November. There seems to be something for everyone, and it seems the RSC have outdone themselves as they prepare to showcase everything from serious debates to downright frivolity. When it was announced the old RST would be redeveloped, many complained that many of the stories and memories would vanish when the theatre was restructured. As the new theatre becomes a hive of activity in winter, however, no doubt we will be treated to anecdotes for the new generation.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the highlights.

What would the RSC be without poetry? Buggered, that’s what. Rightly so, the first staged event to be taking place in the new 1000-seat space on 3rd December will be Uncertainty is Not a Good Dog, a “playful evening of witty and tender poetry” by award-winning poets. It is somewhat odd that the first event will not be based around Shakespeare, but this being the premiere for the theatre it will probably sell out quickly.

Certain to sell out sooner, however, will be Love Is My Sin, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, directed and adapted by Peter Brook. Performed on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th January, this piece will surely remind us of the beauty of Shakespeare’s words and the skill of Brook himself.

In true RSC style, audiences will also be treated to a selection of discussions and talks, including Barrie Rutter reminiscing about his time at the RSC on 11th December, Quentin Blake drawing some of his beloved Roald Dahl characters on 4th December and Roger Rees in his one-man half-performance-half-discussion show What You Will on 14th and 15th December. Most exciting perhaps is Tim Minchin on 16th January playing songs from Matilda and his new one man show. Having seen Minchin live last year, this is a definite must-see.

Throughout the early months the theatre will be taken over by many companies and artists outside the RSC performing sight-specific work within the new shell. Sound and Fury on 8th December promises to help us “discover new words throughout the theatre”, and Geraldine Pilgrim’s Handbag, originally seen at BAC to critical acclaim, establishes itself in the RST on 6th and 7th November.

There is too much to write about in detail, but other events include demonstrations of the technical side of the theatre, performances from young and amateur dramatic societies, concerts, exhibitions and stand-up from Russell Kane and Chris Addison.

Moving on to February we see the first major productions to be staged in the new auditoria. First up is David Farr’s production of King Lear with Greg Hicks in the title role, followed by Rupert Goold’s acclaimed production of Romeo and Juliet at the RST. I must admit a slight disappointment at this news, for I must confess the illogical part of my mind wished the new theatre would open with a new repertoire. Of course in practice this would have been impossible, as the current ensemble finish in London merely a month before, but the dream was still there. Nevertheless, both of these productions are superb are well worth the visit.

Round the back in the Swan Theatre, Michael Boyd’s less than impressive Anthony and Cleopatra plays alongside short runs of Little Angel Theatre’s The Tempest and a new production of The Rape of Lucrece. Those who missed the Young People’s Shakespeare productions of Hamlet and Comedy of Errors will also be able to catch them in the Swan and RST respectively.

On a sadder note, it has come to my attention that at the moment the RSC has no firm plans for a farewell to the Courtyard Theatre, the ensemble’s temporary home for the past four years, after Matilda at Christmas. The building will stay where it is and will be used as part of the Shakespeare Festival, but it surely deserves a proper send-off. The RSC, I am told, are open to thoughts and ideas, so email them today and the Courtyard will get the treatment it needs.

Boyd is yet to announce what productions will officially open the new theatres in April next year to coincide with the 50th birthday celebrations, but whatever they are we can expect something spectacular and must-see. We wait in anticipation.

For more information take a look at the schedule http://www.rsc.org.uk/downloads/theatres-opening-schedule.pdf