The ornate Victoriana of The Old Vic auditorium sits in stark contrast to the ultra-modern setting of the English Touring Theatre and Malvern Theatre's production of Shakespeare's King Lear which opened last night. From the outset, I have to say what a joy this production was. The clarity and honesty of performance from every member of this talented cast swept like a breath of fresh air through the building. The Old Vic is presenting the finest that British theatre can produce.
The Old Vic stage is washed in a sad-sky eggshell grey, a single central entrance upstage, like the sorry echo of a fireplace in a minimalist's restoration project. The acting space is dominated by a raised, perilously raked platform, bedecked with slabs of seasoned oak. On this twenty-first century dais, a Jacobean carved oak chair rests expectantly, its throne-like simplicity signposting the juxtaposition between Shakespeare's age and our own. Above the throne, suspended in the grey void, a vast steel framed photographic image of a Hubble-intensified Earth, itself suspended in blacker than black space, radiates with iridescent beauty. This other world of King Lear is our world. Our follies, our regrets, our angers and frustrations, our slide into senility and old age.
We are first introduced to the Earl of Gloucester (Michael Cronin), his dastardly bastard son Edmund (Dominic Rickhards) and the ever-faithful Earl of Kent (Garry Cooper). Dressed in aristocratic black period costume, the intense shadow-enhancing side-lighting giving comic-book clarity to this recreation of a Jacobean playhouse acting company, and perfectly suited to such an epically simple production. Van Dyck-like portraits of a British court, the Albany of the North and Scotland and Cornwall's West Country and Wales, combine in a Jamesean dream of a United Kingdom.
The throne is occupied by the patriarch/Divine ruler/father King Lear. Timothy West, magnificent as Lear, effortlessly exudes the authority of experience, age and power. His craggy irascible forehead, wisps of white hair, and trademark frown frame the eyes of a king at odds with the onset of old age, physical deterioration unsuited to his lion-hearted rule. Lear demands, as many fathers must still demand, proof of their children's affection.
Two of his three daughters, triple heirs to this jewel of Britain, empowered by their less than perfect marriages to less than perfect men, receive their blessing and their portion from their fulsomely and heartlessly praised father. Only Cordelia, youngest favourite of Lear, and yet to be married to a suitable French king, believes that true love and respect in deed and action are worth more than the false-tongued sycophancy of her self-motivated siblings. Cordelia will not measure her love for her father, turn her love into a commodity to be rewarded and exchanged for land and title.
We cringe, as generations have cringed, at the impotent heartlessness of Lear's reaction. Lear's rejection of his beloved Cordelia, his blindness to her honest affection, and her banishment from his heart and care foredooms the royal princess to exile and the inevitability of tragic consequence.
Cordelia, regally portrayed by Rachel Pickup, appears very little in the course of the play. Yet her character is so important, so influential on the developing narrative. Her sisters are the malicious and scheming Goneril, played with haughty disdain by the excellent Jessica Turner, and Regan, no less heartless as she nonchalantly fingers Gloucester's blood, played with manipulative sensuality by Catherine Kanter. Their husbands, Albany (Robert East) and Cornwall (Christopher Campbell), make sorry attempts at male domination of these female forces for evil. Only Albany, abused and emasculated by his domineering wife Goneril, alone discovers his own manly integrity, reuniting the nation and repelling the enemy without and within.
Rich in subplots, the play makes use of disguise and dissembling as both Kent, and Gloucester's wrongly accused legitimate son Edgar (Nick Fletcher), hide their aristocratic upbringings beneath a mantle of rural simplicity. Kent's refusal to remain quiet at Lear's outrageous treatment of Cordelia, and Kent's honourable attempt to remain close to his king, displays the character's strength, integrity and fortitude, even when basely thrown in the stocks by Cornwall and Regan. Garry Cooper's Kent was a highlight of an already wonderful evening.
Nick Fletcher played Edgar with boyish charm, his reincarnation as Mad Tom, a notoriously difficult transition, proved an intelligent study in disguise as necessary defence against unknown enemies. Edgar rediscovers his own father, Gloucester, now horrifically tortured and eyeless, and guides him through the troughs of despair and attempted suicide to a self-reckoning and Stoic acceptance of terrible fate. Michael Cronin's Gloucester received the applause it deserved, his awful blind journey mirroring the mental blindness of Lear himself.
Bitter comic relief comes from Lear's Fool (David Cardy) who hobbles alongside the king, his fooling jests recognizable as harsh comments on the king's irrational behaviour towards Cordelia. As Lear spirals into insanity, the Fool is revealed as sage, as contrasting wisdom to this storm-tossed land and storm-tossed kingly brain.
Grant Gillespie plays the intelligencing courtier, and confidential go-between of Goneril, with affectation and camp delight. He gets his come-uppance though, with his dying act of humanity changing the course of the play. Even this unwholesome character finds redemption in the end, unlike the princesses Goneril and Regan, both literally carted onto stage, their bodies poisoned and stabbed in bitter fratricide.
Stephen Unwin has directed a masterpiece of Shakespearean theatre. The clarity which I mentioned before is the most startling aspect of this evening. Every nuance, every subtlety of performance is nurtured and focused. The set designer, Neil Warmington, has created an acting space which draws the audience in, both visually and aurally. Warmington's collaboration with Mark Bouman on the costume design provides an artful evocation of Jacobean dress which clarifies specific references within the text. At no time a museum piece, but a visual evocation of a lost age resonating through this magnificent play. Bruno Poet's atmospheric side lighting casts extreme shadows over the actor's faces, whilst Duncan Chave's sound combines to create a storm of mind-shattering intensity.
King Lear at The Old Vic is triumphant tragedy. This is, without doubt, a great Lear for the twenty-first century. Miss it at your peril.
Kevin Quarmby © 2003