Friday, 2 November 2012

King Lear

Almeida theatre, 1 November 2012

Jonathan Pryce's towering Lear. From Almeida.

A great cast make the most of the Almeida's site in this terrifying apocalyptic drama.

When reflecting with a suitable distance after a performance of King Lear, I confront a mystery. No theatrical experience can do justice to the text, as so much of it must rush over the audience in a torrential flood. So why is the experience so utterly shattering?

Bloodier, nastier tragedies have been written, some of them by the younger Shakespeare, and in general his period is a fine example of genuine renaissance, meaning the rebirth of the goriness and vitality of the Senecan tragedies of imperial Rome.

Some of these are powerful, but Lear is greater still, and the depiction of terrible loss of dignity is so human, so immediately communicative, that by the time of Lear’s final entrance bearing Cordelia’s body in his arms, somehow it is the final straw. A moment of redemption (Edmund) is cruelly engulfed by our foreknowledge that this will not bring justice; indeed that all notions of justice can (will? must?) fail against the hard rock of the world.

It is easy to see why centuries ago this drama was adapted to mitigate Shakespeare’s ending.

A minor blot appears in Michael Attenborough’s production during this final scene. Jonathan Pryce’s aptly larger-than-life king does not enter carrying his prone daughter in his arms; a burly soldier does this.

This is unrepresentative, for Pryce is otherwise a dominating presence, though his performance is marred by making Lear occasionally lapse into senility; I suppose this is intended to make us sympathise with what is a pressing problem for all of us, while making us understand Goneril and Regan a little better.

But what we gain in ambiguity we lose on the sense of injustice… the violence of the two daughters against the unwise father becomes less shocking if we suspect he needs the care home rather than the hunting ground.

Another misjudgement is the placement of the Fool’s bizarre prophecy. It’s hard to know what anyone is supposed to do with this, but my experience is that it should be our last sighting of this strange character. In this production he lingers on, finally leaving in disgust, discarding his cap – and therefore presumably is supposed to represent a sensitive audience member, who might very well leave before witnessing the final scenes of reconciliation then degradation.

As usual, the Fool’s banter with Lear is incomprehensible, and of course so is much of the drama – in reading, Edgar’s ironic self-abnegation comes across with much greater strength than can be shown in the theatre, where he must appear as another whacky character among the rest.

Of all Shakespeare dramas, this suffers most from phrases that cannot be understood; indeed whole scenes. It could be satirised as an old man getting naked and shouting in a storm, and the storm scene needs something inventive in order to work, as clearly we cannot be expected to follow the bellowings. Attenborough does well here, with a vivid image of the Fool hanging onto Lear.

The sparseness of the Almeida stage is also a major strength in this drama, in which one man’s collapse is also the collapse of an entire world.

This is the drama of mortality, and of the inevitable shame that comes with it. Lear’s futile rages against injustice, his changing impatient, insightful approach, are the rages we all experience if we genuinely contemplate our non-existence.

This production brought me viscerally close to that contemplation, and the fact that other productions, perhaps any production, would do the same, does not lessen its achievement.

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