Theatre

King Lear @ Albery Theatre, London



cast list
Corin Redgrave
Sian Brooke
Matthew Rhys
Paul Aron
Ruth Gemmell
Emily Raymond

directed by
Bill Alexander

An effective production of King Lear should leave the audience feeling as if they have had a water cannon turned upon, or been passed through a mangle. The raw power of Shakespeare’s great tragedy is probably unsurpassed in the history of English literature.

Yet as well as the tragic force which the play unleashes in the relationships between its central characters, Lear is unusually attuned to political issues: this is a play in which the king ultimately expresses sympathy for the ‘houseless heads and unfed sides’ of the ‘Poor naked wretches’ who populate his kingdom; later, the Earl of Gloucester proclaims ‘So distribution should undo excess/And each man have enough.’ The play is a maelstrom of ideas, which should batter the audience much as the mad king is himself battered by the storm on the heath.

On this understanding, the RSC production of Lear currently showing at the Albery must be considered a failure. This is not to say that the production is without merit, or that it should be avoided; it is a good version of the play, but not a great one.

The title role is taken by Corin Redgrave, part of a great acting family whose father Michael is generally considered to have been one of the great British actors, and whose sister Vanessa will soon take the title role in Euripides’s Hecuba for the RSC. Corin, by contrast, is less of a household name outside theatrical circles, perhaps best known to the public through his roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral and In the Name of the Father.

His Lear is one of the stronger points of this production. I realised after seeing the poster that this might be the first Lear I had come across who did not have a white beard, and this is significant; Redgrave’s king is not a frail old man, but a man on the very cusp of old age. He can still remember what it was like to be young and active, and is frustrated by his descent into old age. This adds a new dimension to Lear’s tragic disintegration; in his moments of lucidity, he is as painfully aware of what he is losing as we are. When at the close of the play he describes himself as ‘a very foolish fond old man’, this is what he has become; but the poignancy has been increased by the speed with which the boisterous, hearty king of the opening scene has become this shrunken carcass.

The performances elsewhere are mixed. Matthew Rhys, who played Romeo as part of this RSC season, impresses as the machiavel Edmund. After an unconvincing start Pal Aron as Edmund’s virtuous half-brother Edgar is also strong, while Leo Wringer is impressively manic and surreal as Lear’s fool. Elsewhere, though, Emily Raymond and Ruth Gemmell are unconvincing as Lear’s wicked daughters Goneril and Regan, failing to conjure up sufficient malice or complexity. The dynamic of the play suffers from this lack of a convincing correlative to Lear’s titanic anger and sense of betrayal.

The staging is also less than impressive. In a sense this is understandable; Jonathan Kent’s 2002 Lear, with Oliver Ford Davies, had a hugely elaborate set which though impressive threatened to distract from the intensity of the play’s action. Director Bill Alexander endeavours to allow this production to more simply exhibit the strengths of the play itself, but this leaves certain sections – such as Lear’s wanderings on the heath – seeming rather hollow.

Lear is a play so fine that it will always be worth watching, and there is great pleasure to be found in simply seeing it again, and marvelling at the beauty of lines such as ‘Allow not nature more than nature needs/Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s’. There are definite strengths in this particular production, but it fails to fully wield the devastating power which Lear can offer.



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