The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon was packed for last night's press night of King Lear, starring Corin Redgrave in the title role. There is a huge responsibility when staging such an important tragedy from the Shakespeare canon. Does it follow a classical stance, portraying war-hardened Celts fighting for command of a savage land? Or perhaps it transposes the battle for control to a more genteel age, an Edwardian confection of stylish gowns and frock coats, feathered hats and languishing fur wraps. Kandis Cook, who has designed the costumes, has fallen into neither of these traps. This is a fanciful Lear in which elegant early-twentieth-century courtliness mixes with a rugged earthiness. Men in flowing coats and shirt collars, well-cut suits and plus-fours, easily don the requisite armour for the inevitable sword fights. The effect is visually stimulating without ever jarring.
Bill Alexander has directed Lear with compassion and an obvious sense of awe for this justifiably most famous Shakespearean play. Running at nigh on four hours including an interval, this is an homage to the spiralling defeat of a once great man's soul. Almost surgically, Alexander allows his actors to explore the pain and sorrow of a dysfunctional royal family determined to self destruct in the scrabble for power.
Tom Piper's set is vast and stark. The proscenium wings are stripped back to the bare thirties brick of the theatre. An imposing skeleton of reinforced steel joists evoke the merest hint of a roy al palace. The back wall, again exposed brick, with iron prison door for a single central upstage entrance, is cleft by a decidedly dodgy looking crack that meanders from lintel all the way to the flys. This symbolises the instability of Lear's kingdom. A memorable effect is the lightning bolt before the famous storm which seers through this fissure, splitting the back wall in two and exposing a cavernous wasteland festooned with tattered rags that hang like giant cobwebs from above. The effect is of space; the space is menacing and augers nothing but madness and death.
Redgrave's Lear is a buffooning old fool who enjoys nothing more than courtly gags and gaffs. Redgrave plays with the character who is not so much king, more petulant manager of a not too successful country which he plans to split amongst his daughters and their none too bright husbands. The opening moments where Tim Mitchell's artfully positioned spotlights pinpoint the protagonists, and capture in filmic close-up the traits that are to lead to Lear's downfall, is theatrical magic. Into this expectant royal mix comes the figure of Lear, huddled over and rattling along with the aid of a stick. suddenly Lear jumps with youthful glee. Here is a king who out-clowns his own clown.
Lear's daughters are forcefully played by Emily Raymond as Gonerill, Ruth Gemmell as Regan and Sîan Brooke as Cordelia. Brooke is perfect as the doomed Cordelia, whilst Raymond and Gemmell are every inch the villains of the piece. Their woefully put upon husbands are no match for these fiery women who display the true depth of machiavellian misrule. These are princesses who make warped decisions of state that far outweigh the retirement antics of their demob happy father.
Both Gonerill and Regan fall for the wayward charms of Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. Matthew Rhys gives a magnificent performance as the evil son who plots his legitimate brother's downfall and attempts to win as much influence as possible by bedding both married princesses. Rhys is so believable in his malicious charm. This is a truly great performance from one who has already wowed Stratford with his splendid Romeo. A true star.
David Hargreaves is likewise a sympathetically portrayed Gloucester who is easily duped by his bastard son. From the beginning of the play, though, this is a Gloucester whose course wit at his young son's expense pre-empts the pain that Gloucester feels at losing his eyes. Hargreaves's Gloucester is a boorish old curmudgeon who finds salvation with the help of his legitimate heir, Edgar, played by Pal Aron. The transformations from gauche student, through anthropomorphic Tom, to armour clad avenger are fraught with danger for this most difficult role. As Mad Tom, Aron developed a physicality at once so dangerous and so fanciful that he appeared to metamorphose as a barking dog cloned with a particularly vicious iguana. His care and attention for his blinded father was, however, as touching as any moment in the theatre.
An interesting dynamic evolved between two other famous characters in the play: Kent and Lear's Fool. Louis Hilyer's Kent, a character usually portrayed as a rugged though faithful retainer, changed into a forceful brutish bodyguard for the failing health of his king. Hilyer strutted and postured his stuff with well-grounded glee, though his bullying tactics never quite succeed in keeping Lear from harm. There was no doubt this Kent truly loved his king and master.
John Normington plays Lear's Fool with equal strength and conviction. This is a Fool who has grown up and grown old with his king. So much so that the Fool is a twittering fancy who sings his comic ditties whilst prancing like a geriatric elf. Normington plays the Fool as a devastated wreck of a music hall performer who symbolically hands over his jester's wand to the new joker in the pack, Mad Tom.
Alexander has directed a brave and evocative production of King Lear which questions many preconceptions for the play, and poses many unanswered questions about this great man's sorrowful decline. It is a sorry indictment of bad government swayed by fla ttery and sycophancy. It is also a warning to all great men who place too much store in their own emotive reactions. This is an evening of some very fine performances indeed. This production will certainly impress and sits well in the 2004 season of Shakespeare's Tragedies.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004