Friday, 25 August 2017

Theatre review: King Lear (Shakespeare's Globe)

It's likely to be overshadowed very shortly by Ian McKellen's return to the title role, but the Globe's production of King Lear delivers a clear, if not particularly distinctive telling of the story. Kevin R McNally plays Lear, a king who decides to go into retirement, hoping to maintain all the perks of rule with none of the responsibilities. It doesn't work that way though, as he discovers when he divides his kingdom between his older daughters Goneril (Emily Bruni) and Regan (Sirine Saba,) cutting off his youngest Cordelia (Anjana Vasan) when she fails to flatter him to his liking. Inevitably he finds he's trusted the wrong daughters and as his mental and physical health start to deteriorate he's cast out into the wilderness, while around him storms rage and England breaks out into civil war.

Lear can be played as a tyrant while still in power but McNally goes for the sotfter approach, making him affable as he divides his kingdom, aware that his body is failing him as he regularly clutches his left arm in a foreshadowing of the heart attack that will eventually kill him.

So his sudden violent reaction to Cordelia is a surprise to those around him and a first sign that his mind is also deteriorating. Nancy Meckler's production is framed by the actors arriving at a Globe that seems abandoned, Rosanna Vize's design cladding the stage in plastic sheeting which is gradually ripped off as the players take over the stage. It's a fairly common theme in productions of King Lear to have the design erode to reflect the decline in the story, and this is essentially the opposite, having the facade of decay and neglect torn off to reveal the stage is still in good condition underneath; I'm not entirely sure it brought anything to the production, other than a more optimistic attitude.

But then this is about as optimistic as you can make King Lear, as is a feature of the Globe it's easier to bring out the comedy in a piece and it's certainly true that there's more laughs here than you'll usually find in the play - all of them right there in the text. The gender-swap of Lear's most loyal servant also plays into this, as when Saskia Reeves' female Kent disguises herself as a man - her turning him into a little cockney with a Napoleon complex makes a lot of sense of his aggressive manner - deliberately calls to mind the disguised heroines in Shakespeare's comedies: There's a lot of Viola in Reeves' awkward braggadocio.

I also liked the distinction between the sadism of Saba's Regan and her husband Cornwall (Faz Singhateh) and the more coldly calculating, logical evil of Goneril: Bruni makes one of the best cases I've seen for the fact that the daughters' demands aren't actually selfish, at least not to start with; allowing a private army into your home, who could and probably will slit your throat as you sleep if a man with dementia tells them to on a whim, isn't a reasonable request.

Less successful is the story of Gloucester (Burt Caesar,) who makes a similar misjudgment to Lear but with sons rather than daughters; it feels more subplot than parallel plot. Joshua James tries valiantly to play Edgar as somewhat foppish and making his own journey to maturity, but he's not really backed up by the production as a whole. And Ralph Davis is charming, but I wasn't sure just how unambiguously evil his Edmund was meant to be. Overall Meckler's production works, and the occasional use of dance and movement is well-integrated, while the drums in Simon Slater's score atmospherically conjure the storm; it just won't be one of the most memorable productions.

King Lear by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 14th of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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