Saturday, February 22, 2014

Misreading King Lear at many levels

Lear Central Cast at Curtain Call
Back from Cambridge Mass last weekend and then very busy work week. But yesterday we went to the National Theatre King Lear starring Simon Russell Beale (no kin).

There are some very fine actors in this production, including of course SRB who is amazingly talented. But I regret to say that this production strikes me as a really disappointing misreading of the play on many levels.

First and foremost they utterly mangle the verse.  Inserting ..... silly pauses ... just to ..... break the blank verse ..... up so that it .... isn't ...... heard.  First and foremost, Shakespeare was a POET. I doubt whether anyone who didn't know would realise that about 85% of the play is in verse.  Because they insert so many meaningless pauses they also have to cut lots of the text but still the whole thing runs for 3h30mins including the interval of 20 mins.

Secondly they decided that the pay is about "an absolute monarchy, a dictatorship" (see the interview with Sam Mendes and SRB in the programme).  But an absolute monarchy and a dictatorship are very different things. Since they have decided Lear is a Dictator and Dictators are Bad they play Lear as being so completely unreasonable that it is very hard to understand how or why anyone could love him (they admit this difficulty in the interview!) with the result that Goneril and Regan appear to be acting quite reasonably in curtailing his excesses so it's only when Lear goes out onto the heath that you begin to think he might be a tiny bit hard done by.

Again, although the initial "How much do you love me" scene is quite difficult to bring off you really need to get a significant level of sympathy for Cordelia. The set-up with each "contestant" having a microphone is not (wholly) unreasonable but Cordelia's asides, which are the first things she says and crucial to establishing her character, are delivered straight to the microphone and not asides at all. One key point seems to me to be that Cordelia is much younger than her sisters (Lear is meant to be 80) and presumably by a different mother, so that Goneril and Regan are her step-sisters.  They try to make Cordelia quite strong which is a good reading and could be made more of (she is after all leading an army) but they don't seem to me to follow this through. Another ridiculous mis-reading was to have Edgar stab Edmund whilst pretending to embrace him rather than fighting him in trial by combat.

As is I think often the case Kent, Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar were very strong - played by Stanley Townsend, Stephen Boxer, Sam Troughton and Tom Brooke respectively.  And it will be interesting to see what happens to Olivia Vinall the relative newcomer cast as Cordelia.

Nevertheless it is a wonderful play and I was glad to have re-engaged with the text after many decades (I don't remember when I last saw it).

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