King Lear

I visited a sadly empty theatre to see Michael Pennington as King Lear. Perhaps the tour had the mischance to be in Cornwall very close to its live screening on the local cinema – at of course cheaper prices. I hope it is not because people just didn’t want to come to see that particular play.

Of course, it’s not the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays in any sense: hard to stage and not a barrel of laughs either. I have seen many versions over the years, some [like Donald Sinden as Lear] were painful; Timothy West  starred in a very straight version, outstanding in its clarity. That was a success. I once said it was not a play for amateurs, but had to eat my words last year, when I saw the Winchester College Players perform it at the Minack Theatre. There, it was the female Fool who stole the show, bringing a poignancy to Lear’s ‘O, I have ta’en too little care of this’. But last night’s offering, for power, poignancy and horror was excellent, well night faultless. If you can’t see it live, please at least see the Live Screening [despite my opening paragraph!]

The most disgustingly realistic removal of Gloucester’s eyes, and Edmund’s savagely bleeding thigh, contributed to the horror. I was sitting three rows from the front and Cornwall’s ‘Out, vile jelly!’ after which he threw the offending gory lump onto the floor was genuinely dreadful.

The ensemble were all excellent. It is hard for actresses to build the evil sisters’ jealousy of each other and lust for Edmund out of not much in the script – but they managed it successfully, just as the turn from nice civilised people into the monsters their father accuses them of being was excellent.

The Fool [Joshua Elliott] too, was different – closer to a traditional coxcombed entertainer, but with an edge of vulnerability from the start. His transition from court jester to sick, dying dependent was well done. It  clearly conveyed the point of Lear’s gradual learning curve from foolish man to self-knowledge and more – knowledge of what he should have been as a King, a father and a human being. That journey begins with the fool’s trembling plight in the storm, which awakens a new tenderness in the ageing king.

Edgar’s random madness is where Lear’s awakening conscience and awareness of the world is taken to next. Gavin Fowler managed these mad speeches admirably. They are fiendishly difficult because almost completely nonsensical. Edgar is using the words as a disguise, a jumble of craziness, which muddies sense and throws people off the scent of who he may really be as effectively as the mud plastering his face and limbs. I particularly admired the way Edgar in this production reacted every time his father, Gloucester, came in, with frenzies and twitches, all designed to keep his face from being recognised.

The main plaudits must go to Michael Pennington, whose Lear was a towering performance throughout. His irascibility at the beginning already had the seeds of unreason surfacing through it; the whole arc of Lear’s life-on-stage was a masterly trajectory through dementia. Having recently lost my mother to Alzheimers, I recognised the fits of anger and aggression, the fear and the sad vacant-eyed portrait of lost wits in the scene where Lear is pushed in on a wheelchair. Tears pricked my eyes at moments where I had never felt sorrow in previous productions. This Lear took us, the audience, with him and we were all firmly on his side. Every thought process was clearly shown – the knitting together of disparate images or ideas popping into his head – so that we saw how his mind worked, how his obsessions surfaced in different random ways – to make perfect sense. Thank you Mr Pennington.

The themes of sight/blindness, folly/wisdom were pointed clearly too. And [not for the first time] I was again struck by the extraordinary archetypes the play offers us, Beckett-like in their unforgettability. The Fool, the Beggar, the Blind Man,thrown together in a surreal landscape,  stamp themselves on our consciousness and haunt our dreams.  I am so very glad to have seen a King Lear that feeds into that imagery and reminds me of it. I shall remember it for a long time.