By William Shakespeare
Bath Theatre Royal
8th August 2013 matinee
Directed by Lucy Bailey
With David Haig as King Lear
Lear and Cordelia
LEAR, King of Britain – David Haig
GONERIL, Lear’s eldest daughter – Aislin McGuckin
REGAN – Lear’s middle daughter – Fiona Glascott
CORDELIA, Lear’s youngest daughter – Fiona Button
Duke of ALBANY – Daniel Weyman
Duke of Cornwall – Samuel Oatley
King of FRANCE – George Beach
Duke of BURGUNDY – Chris Fulton
Earl of KENT – David Ganly
Earl of GLOUCESTER – Paul Shelley
EDGAR – William Postlethwaite
EDMUND – Samuel Edward-Cook
OLD MAN – Alister Cameron
FOOL – Simon Gregor
OSWALD – Simon Darwen
CURAN – Peter Henderson
SERVANT of Cornwall – Alexander James Simon
DOCTOR – Alister Cameron
HERALD – John Canmore
Knights, Attendants, Messengers, Soldiers and servants played by – George Beach, Alister Cameron, John Canmore, Chris Fulton, Peter Henderson & Alexander James Simon.
King Lear should be a play for Britain 2013. Every time I hear a cabinet minister on the radio, they seem to be whining about how the baby boomer generation have got all the money, and how society needs to be restructured to grab it back. There is a valid underlying point, but the ones I hear speaking are rich boys (they have all been male) who got a public school education, free university education without student loans, got bought their first car, had big wedding to equip the kitchen, got help with their mortgage and have found their inconvenient parents have decided to live past seventy instead of passing the estate on as expected. OK, pension annuity rates have been hacked to bits, savers get less than 1% on their savings, then add stamp duty when they downsize houses, and inheritance tax when they die, while mortgage rates are at an all-time low. In other words, these whining and ungrateful rich boys are already doing all they possibly can to suck the money away from their parents’ generation. They’re all Conservatives, but everyone knows that neither Labour nor Liberal Democrat will do anything to fly to the rescue of older people who probably voted Conservative in the first place. I’d love to do King Lear in Yes, Prime Minister style with David Cameron as the Duke of Albany, Ed Milliband as the Duke of Cornwall (David Miliband could be the Earl of Gloucester) and Nick Clegg as third spear carrier. Michael Gove would play Edmund, the evil, scheming nasty rich boy bastard. Anyway, Shakespeare wrote a play all about these intergenerational issues of inheritance and it’s King Lear.
The last time we saw King Lear was with Pete Postelthwaite at the Young Vic, where we sat in the front row, right by the stone sink, expecting to get spattered with stage blood at any moment. That was dressed in the 1960s too, though where they managed to find such dull, unattractive Crimplene for the women was a mystery. The Theatre Royal places you at a safer distance.
The essay on The Kray Brothers in the programme sets out the concept, extending the recent theme of showing Shakespearean aristocrats, dukes and kings as gangland figures. Lucy Bailey as director was our reason for marking this a “must see” as I’ve never been fond of King Lear, finding it too convoluted. Her concept is to play up 60s Gangland as the setting for the entire play, with projection on dropped transparent screens to fill in the locations. But what she’s done is focus most on the parallel plot of Gloucester, with his devious illegitimate son Edmund and honest son, Edgar, and given us Gloucester & Sons instead of King Lear. Nothing says it more than Edmund’s entirely gratuitous added scene shagging a rent boy in a phone box. If you really want a gratuitous “shocking” scene for publicity, it could have been given to Goneril or Regan. Cordelia, bookending the play, then sitting in the dressing room for two hours, is always going to be compromised role, but the direction does nothing to help that. The play should be “about” the three daughters. A female director, surprisingly, gave us too little of them. The Gloucester trio is strong: Paul Shelley as old Gloucester, Samuel Edward-Cook as Edmund, William Postelthwaite as Edgar.
As with all powerful timeshifted Shakespeare, the concept starts out very well, and then wilts badly in the face of the script, so that at half-time I was mentally awarding it four stars out of five for the innovation, but by the time I’d sat through watching ageing actors dressed as skinheads limply holding baseball bats to repel the French invasion, downgrading it sharply to two. The only time thespians worked with weapons this year was the National Theatre’s Othello when they brought in an army weapons specialist to advise. Here, fights were mainly feeble. There were classic horror moments. The eyeball removing scene was in a penthouse, and done well with everyone gouging at Gloucester while Regan climbs over their backs to watch. The much-trumpted dropping an eyeball in a glass of champagne might have shocked if we hadn’t read about it every single review first.
Four for the first half, two for the second? An average of three. We had a sneaking sensation of a matinee “saving your energy” performance all round too, which given several prime empty seats is likely and forgivable. But King Lear is for deep Shakespeare fans only, I’ve always felt.
Gloucester is about to lose his eyes
The projection work was great. We saw ancient East End pubs, seedy streets, night clubs, penthouse apartments with rain on the windows, dossers outside a chain fence, rainswept heaths. You could feel the director hankering for the RSC thrust stage in Stratford that she’s used to, and confined by the Bath Theatre Royal’s proscenium stage. She opened the set right back to the very back wall of the theatre for much of the second half to grab more space and movement … but it’s still a picture window proscenium view.
Oh, and King Lear himself. David Haig has been highly acclaimed in The Madness of King George for his stage work. He’s on the young side for Lear, and there is the baggage for fans of The Thin Blue Line of finding it impossible to eradicate the TV image of the Detective Sergeant telling people to “stop fannying about.” It was a short-lived series, a long time ago, but it made a great impression. The concept is the issue. He’s a gangland boss who puts his full flat-out rage into scene one. I don’t agree with other reviews that “throwing Cordelia through the pub door was shocking.” On the matinee, I’d call it a half-hearted shove. There is no nobility to shatter in this Lear. We don’t feel on the “blasted heath” (or back alleys here) that the mighty have been brought down, just that a nasty petty gangster has made a poor move with his will and should have read those adverts about consulting a lawyer (or as he might say “brief”) first. Incidentally, I approve of the projected continual rain. If they’d done this at Stratford or the South Bank or Salisbury, they’d have sprinkled the poor actors for ages with real water. Have pipes, will sprinkle.
Full marks for Haig’s clear articulation. The rest of the cast vary between out-and-out Mockney and mild Thespuary and accents wobble a little.
It IS an elaborate production. We thought the blocking a bit haphazard and static, but nevertheless it’s a shame to go to this much effort and just stop, and it’s been a short run in comparison to the RSC or NT, possibly not a long enough run to iron it out. In spite of my reservations, it has originality, and they should tour it.
Having seen Frank Langella do Lear at Chichester, and Simon Russell-Beale at the National Theatre, I’ll re-assess this production. It had ideas and originality, plus easily the best Edmund. And the best Lear. Regraded to 4 stars!!! (March 2014)
Throughout. At unprecedented levels.
You have to remember to bring your series programme. People next to us bought it on the day, only to find half was devoted to plays they’d missed, and a further quarter to one they weren’t going to see. The four play series programme is a really dumb idea.
Frank Langella in King Lear at Chichester, November 2013.
Simon Russell-Beale at the National Theatre, March 2014