King Lear @ Young Vic, London

cast list
Jacob Anderson,Peter Bramhill,Michael Colgan,Nigel Cooke,Caroline Faber,Amanda Hale,John-Paul MacLeod,Forbes Masson,Tobias Menzies,Christopher Middleton,Jonjo O’Neill,Pete Postlethwaite,Charlotte Randle,John Shrapnel,Clarence Smith

directed by
Rupert Goold
The latest show to hit London off the fast-moving Rupert Goold production line is his controversial staging of King Lear starring Pete Postlethwaite.

Unfortunately, although some of the excesses have been trimmed since the terrible notices it received on its premiere in Liverpool at the end of last year, this is still an underwhelming experience. The bold invention that marked out Goold’s strikingly fresh takes on The Tempest and Macbeth here comes across as merely gimmicky and half-baked.

Unlike Goold’s Soviet-style totalitarian Macbeth, there seems to be little dramatic justification for the early-eighties setting of this King Lear.
In fact, having thankfully ditched the show’s original opening of an audio clip of Mrs Thatcher taking office, the historical context is far from clear. Giles Cadle’s design featuring a corrugated-iron castle and shelving steps through which weeds sprout suggests a nation in decline but this is non-specific.

True, Lear wears a dowdy brown suit and his riotous retinue have St George’s crosses painted on their faces like football hooligans (though shouldn’t they be union jacks?), while Goneril’s love letter to Edmund is shown as a video and the fighting may resemble Falklands-style warfare, but the power struggle in the play does not involve nationalism and imperialism.

Indeed, this production tends to downplay the political dimension, and also the large metaphysical themes, in favour of a domestic tragedy. For example, the opening court scene, in which the retiring Lear (singing a snatch of My Way) bestows his power equally on Goneril and Regan, who use a microphone to falsely sing their father’s praises, while Cordelia is disinherited after refusing to go along with the rigmarole, feels more like a shambolic family karaoke party than a public dynastic announcement.

The storm scene at the heart of the play is the worst I have seen in a production of King Lear, with no sense of tragic grandeur or of hostile nature mirroring the unnatural behaviour of Lear’s daughters: this is far more bathos than pathos. However, the blinding of Gloucester is truly horrific, with Regan sucking out one of his eyeballs before spitting it out on stage. Also, more successful are the later intimate scenes involving the reconciliations of the mad Lear with Cordelia and the blind Gloucester with Edgar.

Some ideas work well, such as having the Fool start but give up Singing in the Rain in misery on the heath and later joyously watch Cordelia returning to England with the invading French army before silently slipping away. But making Goneril pregnant presumably to suggest her own changing family priorities seems an unnecessary distraction, while the duel between Edmund and Edgar fought with toy swords, emphasizing boyhood sibling rivalry, is anti-climactic.

The performances are also on the whole lack-lustre, including crucially Postlethwaite’s Lear. A fine film actor, he lacks the vocal strength and physical presence to dominate proceedings as he should there is little sign of the regal ‘authority’ which Kent mentions and no real rage in his ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks’ speech in an underplayed, low-key delivery which seems to belong more to the screen than the stage. Postlethwaite seems more of a doddery, fretful paterfamilias than a cruelly abused ex-king, and although his gentle return to sanity at the end is touching we do not feel that we have shared an epic journey of self-knowledge with him.

The tribulations of John Shrapnel’s Gloucester, on the other hand, make a big impact, in a strong performance full of noble suffering, while Nigel Cooke is a sturdily faithful Kent. The enmity between Caroline Faber’s bitingly bitter Goneril and Charlotte Randle’s sensually sadistic Regan is well done, but because they are portrayed rather sympathetically early on their later extreme violence seems out of character. Amanda Hale is a plain-speaking, no-frills Cordelia and Forbes Masson’s excellent Fool is a bawdily blunt Scottish comic. In a difficult, underwritten role Tobias Menzies struggles to give Edgar emotional credibility and Jonjo O’Neill expresses Edmund’s sardonic humour without capturing his ruthless ambition.

All in all, this King Lear is a severe disappointment from a director who has been dubbed albeit rather ridiculously as ‘the future of Shakespeare’. Goold tends to divide people into those who love the new insights he offers and those who hate his ‘interference’ with the text, but the only emotion this show provokes is apathy.

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