Tuesday, 1 October 2013

King Lear

Old Vic
29 September 2013

Joss Ackland as Lear. 
Oddly humorous version of the great tragedy that was unfortunately maimed by its circumstances, but still managed to express some interesting points.

What with this and the geriatric lovers in the current Much Ado About Nothing, the Old Vic is aptly named. In a fit of naturalism that would have seemed insane even during that movement’s heyday a hundred years ago, we finally have a Lear who is significantly over 80, and a Gloucester who is about the same age.

This was a one-off reading of the text, not a full performance, to benefit the worthy Motor Neuron Disease Foundation, tackling a disease that usually afflicts people in their 60s. Quite a few of the cast appeared to be over 60 (I haven't checked).

So it seems appropriate to record a few observations about age, ungallant though that may be. Put simply, the actors nearing 90 experienced difficulties an order of magnitude greater than those nearing 70. The latter were roughly as energetic as those in their 20s, though I imagine doing a reading would help with that.

Thankfully they didn’t simply stand around reading the text. No less than Jonathan Miller directed them, though greater kudos must go to whomever cast this piece.

Given the restricted conditions, the casting took on enormous significance, and was masterful, with the exception of Lear and Gloucester. Even there, to the extent possible to disregard infirmity, the casting was strong.

Joss Ackland has an impressive voice, and has a sensitive response to the text, so that there were flashes of what might have been a great Lear had he only been a few years younger. As it was, the torrents of denunciation and rage that we associate with the King were broken up and the performance never really gripped attention as it must.

Which was not a fault only of age, but of the ‘reading’ approach. Every speech was broken by glances at the text. If a radio performance gives us the words clearly, at the expense of visual accompaniments, this was the reverse.

Of all Shakespeare, Lear benefits most from a stripped down production, as it haunts so much of modern drama, most obviously Beckett. What was curious about this production was the obvious humour Miller injected into it. Or perhaps it wasn’t intentional, but he must have known the comings and goings would generate laughs.

Even Edmund’s death, occurring offstage, raised a laugh, at a point when the tragedy is highest. This wasn’t as disruptive as you might imagine. Dark humour and tragedy are brought side-by-side in so much Shakespeare, but I haven’t noticed it working so well as here.

That said, casting Tony Robinson as the Fool was a mixed blessing. He is humorous without effort, and seemed fully on top of the role but he raised laughs from the indulgent audience at lines that either weren’t intended to be funny or were so obscure (as so much is in this drama) that I for one didn’t understand the joke.

There are so many great roles in this drama that there is not enough space to comment on everyone, though every cast member, even the bit parts, brought something interesting to their roles.

Aside from Lear himself, the other key role is Edgar, the man who will succeed him, though that wasn’t obvious in this production. The contrast between youth and age, though, can never have been more explicit, and this was fascinating in itself.

Tam Williams, in his underwear for around half his scenes, and in particular his scenes with the wheelchair-bound Ackland, could have been speaking Chinese and would still have made the greatest visual impression of youth and vitality. As it was, he handled the vocal side ably too, though true authority resides in Lear, whatever virtues Edgar has.

Everyone else was excellent. If only this had been a fully rehearsed production, it might even have overcome the central problem of old age.

To end on a high note, the drama still packed a terrible, awful punch in its final scene.

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