Northern Broadsides Production
Directed by Jonathan Miller
Bath Theatre Royal, Saturday 21st March 2015, 14.30
This is Jonathan Miller’s eighth King Lear. This is the man who has directed Laurence Olivier and Michael Horden. The director was the “must see” element. It’s Barrie Rutter’s second Lear too. Or as the tickets say, “Starring Barrie Rutter.” You’re not supposed to do that with Shakespeare, though I expect Henry Irving did. It’s vaunted as “traditional” and “conventional” as against recent productions. Well, Frank Langella’s 2014 Chichester version was also conventional, but it only played 32 performances before moving to Brooklyn. This is an extensive tour of provincial theatres so no comparison. Fine.
Let’s start with the set. It’s an 18” to 24” inch platform sitting on top of the proscenium arch fronted stage. It has a chequer board tile floor, so almost a giant chessboard, and what looks like an outsized clothes rail with a piece of red cloth (never used) over it at one end. The backdrop is plain black cloths. From just to the side of the auditorium centre we can see the stage lights pointing inwards from the side. This is a classic 60s “in the round” lighting plot with light from above and sides with no light whatsoever allowed to spill onto the backdrop. I learned how to do that, and it’s pretty useful for lighting musicians on stage. For theatre? It looks very Sixties and gives the effect of the action being suspended in space. But there is no set. I assumed that as the tour takes them to so many theatres it was designed to play in the round too. That was until the Gloucester scene where his eyes are put out in silhouette against a bank of lights below the platform at the rear, so probably not.
The effect of the set is amplified by having the courtly males largely in black 17th century costume. The white ruffs and faces show, much of the rest is lost to the point where the Fool standing absolutely still through one scene appears to be a torso suspended in space. Everyone of status is in black except the king, or for the women muted dull gold, red and orange, then for the non-courtly roles, beiges and browns. Only the Fool’s scarlet hat gives dramatic colour. Overall, it’s a strong stage design statement. And a boring one.
The Blasted Heath: L to R: Gloucester, Fool, Lear, Kent in disguise, Tom (Edgar in disguise)
It’s a play of two halves. At the interval, exactly half way through the two and a half hour running time (in itself an odd place to cut), I was awarding a mental four stars at least. It was clear, focussed on lines, economical; after all “uncut” the thing takes four and a half hours to trudge through. Miller has stated his dislike of the four and a half hour production, and the “high concept one” and the one with a large plastic Spinal-Tap Stonehenge and Druid costumes. The play should speak for itself without extraneous bits, and that worked. I was a bit dubious about how the thunder at the end of Part One drowned Goneril and Regan’s lines. The ladies behind us were complaining in the interval about Goneril and Edmund’s projection: it was OK for me (and I’m usually the first to complain about projection), but I have a ten year earwax advantage over them.
The second half reduced my rating considerably. Pretty dire for me. For starters, the Gloucester eye removal scene was done at the back in silhouette in a fog against the blinding footlights which were set behind the stage pointing out. After it, Cornwall (Regan’s hubby) reappears and suddenly proclaims he’s been stabbed and staggers off. What? Who by? When? Completely garbled and underdone. Hang on, these are key scenes, which are scurried over and garbled. Then later, Regan’s poisoning is thrown away. She complains of feeling unwell. Wanders off and dies. Goneril dispatches herself off stage too, for no apparent reason. And worst of all, was the slow-motion Edgar-Edmund fight. Inept. These guys are carrying what appear to be three foot long spiked metal maces. In slow-motion they mime hitting each other’s unhelmeted heads., then whacking each other’s lower spines. With these weapons, if we accept they’re not light-fibreglass, no one is going to get up from the first blow to the forehead. Crushed skull first shot. Dreadful fight direction! And I generally approve of not having to have lots of gore.
King Lear (Barrie Rutter)
They had cut too heavily into the dramatic bits with Gloucester, Cornwall, the death of the older daughters, and the fight, but left all the Lear-Gloucester verbiage. Visually, this had nothing going for it at all. No raucous knights, sounds only for the blasted heath. Even Gloucester’s leap off the cliffs of Dover could have see him dropping 18 inches off the central platform, rather than just falling down where he was, as he did.
The virtues are its domesticity It feels more general than royal. Barrie Rutter centers this and carries it off.
What were the good bits? Well, Edmund was effective with a Mancunian hoodie accent. I thought it west of the Pennines – I might be wrong, but he played it as slightly thick and definitely vicious. As Northern Broadsides is Yorkshire-based, if it was Lancashire, it adds to the villainy. It is the best part in the play. A very nice bit of improv was early on. Edmund was off the platform, leaning against the (real) theatre pillar watching the scene. A mobile phone went off in the audience. He stayed in character and walked forward and stared looking for the perpetrator, Excellent improv and this is REAL theatre. Now.
Oswald was very funny, and milked the interpretation superbly, but effeminate guy wafting about like this is a cliché too far perhaps. OK, he got lots of laughs. So full marks, and casting directors for Congreve and Sheridan will be noting his performance for future reference for fops.
Regan (Nicola Sanderson) and Goneril (Helen Sheals)
Cordelia, Goneril and Reagan didn’t get a chance. All the sex bits are under-cooked, Really played down compared to recent productions. You always feel sorry for Lear, having to carry the dead Cordelia on at the end … I hope I’m not spoiling the plot … but this time two other people carried her on lying on a sacking cloth. Sorry, forget the hernias, this is definitely Lear’s job. And Cordelia (and Goneril) were both tiny. This is why Cordelias have to be light and portable. I’m Barrie Rutter’s age. I could have done it, though I’d rather not have, and I’m sure Cordelia felt safer this way.
Accents? I liked the fact that everyone was Northern. I can’t be accent-deaf and so it made sense. BUT I wouldn’t have included the King of France and Duke of Burgundy in the Northern accents. Northern Broadsides shouldn’t mean no other accent is admissible. The Duke of Burgundy left with a Gallic “Oof!” which was good. Throughout Barrie Rutter’s responsive vocalizations and gestures were memorable.
It was clear. Let’s average the two halves and say three stars.
Mike Poulton essay on the play. Superb character notes, which other theatres should follow. Rutter piece. No adverts. Exemplary programme.
OTHER “KING LEAR” REVIEWS HERE