I’ve had a bumper couple of weeks for play-watching, managing to catch King Lear, The Rover, Cymbeline and Two Noble Kinsmen all on a couple of chocka-block research days over in Stratford. I’ll write more about The Rover, Cymbeline and Two Noble Kinsmen shortly but today’s post is concerned mostly with King Lear.
King Lear, up there with the likes of Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night is perhaps one of the most performed plays of Shakespeare’s canon. I’ve seen three productions of it, a performance of its source play (King Leir), a screening of Verdi’s operatic Lear, and at least three screen versions. Why is it performed so much? Well for all many of reasons, not least because of its seemingly eternal place on GCSE and A-Level specs (though I hadn’t encountered the play until I studied it as an undergraduate). But I’m less concerned with the why, and more intrigued by the effect this has on a play.
We come to a production of a play we are familiar with a different attitude than we have for one we have not seen before. How will they stage the plucking, we wonder, and what about the cliff scene. Productions have to struggle to be even more challenging and novel in their depictions to enable us to see the play in new lights. But productions themselves are of course readings of the play – each one offering a fresh take on familiar lines. For instance I’ve seen King Lear performed outside on scaffolding and a stage tied to a tree, complete with war-paint covered characters, in an Oxford college garden; a performance in Blackwells bookshop which saw the company banging books on the stage to create the storm; and then of course, most recently, the current RSC production (King Lear (RST, Stratford-upon-Avon, 22nd Sept 2016. The matinee).
I arrived to the production early (well in fact very early, I was queuing up at 10 for an on the day ticket), this is a rarity for me. Usually I’m sitting in the Shakespeare Institute library doing some archive work when I glance at my watch and realise I’ve got five minutes before the play starts.. But not this time! Those of us who arrived early were rewarded. We saw the entrance of all eight peasants. Wandering around before finding their places on stage, faces hidden to the audience. Then the lights went down, and the play began.
Poverty and wealth, as I’ve never seen so clearly before, were ever present features on the stage. The wealth of the king as he was carried in, sharply juxtaposed with the voiceless, faceless, black figures who wandered the stage.
This was a subtle nod to the later poverty, desolation and homelessness Lear finds himself in but also a striking comment on the rich and poor divide in the kingdom which, while present in the play, I’ve rarely seen drawn out quite as powerfully as in this production.
Goneril and Regan were suitably nasty, and there was a particularly powerful moment when, as Cornwall falls, wounded by the servant who would protect his master Gloucester to the last, Regan looks at him, no pity in her eyes, and turns and walks away as he dies. This betrayal was all the more potent as the audience likewise watched on as he died, trapped in a glass box in which they interred Gloucester. Like watching on TV, we gazed on the pain of Cornwall and, yes I’ll say it, maybe felt just the tinniest smidge of sympathy for Cornwall- despite his violent deeds – as he bled to death alone. Drawing attention to our watching (as audience members) this box reminded us of perhaps the guilt we privileged viewers, shared in the excess violence we were paying to see. By contrast, this production showed Albany to be a nicer man than I remembered, he sees beneath the evil of his wife and the manipulation and strives to stand up for justice and his father-in-law, though Oswald was as horrible as ever.
All of this makes it sound like a dark play and it was. But it was also probably the funniest Lear I’ve ever seen. A troubling yet untroubling production of the play. The audience were laughing a lot and indeed were being encouraged to do so by the actors, in a sort of lets-all-laugh-about-it approach I’m more familiar with either at the Globe or, more generally, in a um comedy. Lear of course is not a comedy but that’s not to say there are not comic moments. The comedy didn’t just come from the fool who, of course, is not only funny but also speaks profound wisdom unlike those who grow foolish around him. Comedy came too from Edmund. Not a man I usually associate with humour. From Kent, and even from the evil sisters (in moderation). The tragic conclusion was perhaps all the more painful for the more comic and lighter start of the play. We returned to the second half with barely a laugh in the house. The profundity of the tragedy had returned with the ice-cream to the stalls.
The storm was particularly well done. The purpose of the tarpaulin which had covered the stage from the beginning slowly became apparent as, like children playing with a parachute (but darker) it was wafted and rose a mighty storm as it waved and crashed about the stage with Lear and the fool high up in the elements. Rain poured down on the projector behind, and the blasted heath was blasted indeed.
There was also a sense of magic, or some kind of dark power at play in the words of judgement Lear spoke, whether to his daughters, or the storm. He spoke with magnitude authority and in a fearful way that, it was almost as though Vader was among us proclaiming the power of the dark side and forcing his way upon us. This power necessarily weakened as Lear’s power waned but the dark magic similar to the words of Prospero in the Tempest was alarming in its power. It suggested that Lear had once indeed been a powerful monarch with a dangerous temper. This was no benevolent nice-old-man Sher played but once still burning with emotions even if his senses and intellect were slowly failing him.
But why, you may wonder did I begin this piece talking about eyes and re-seeing productions. Well, it was at this production of King Lear that I first saw again the show through new eyes, thanks to my neighbour. The lady next to me turned in the interval to ask if I was a student.. Apparently my (certainly unacademic) book for interval reading gave me away. She then revealed that she’d not only never seen Lear but didn’t know the story and was wondering if I could tell her it. What a treat! I then relayed the story of what had just happened and then a non-spoiler (harder than it sounds) of the action which was coming up, things like: something nasty is going to happen to Gloucester quite soon thanks to the baddies Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund, watch his eyes for a clue. Ok not very cryptic. But of course that means little until you actually see it for the first time! The second half was then far more exciting because as bits I’d nodded to in the summary took place my neighbour expressed shock, delight and horror. I’ll never forget her horrified smile as she realised what I’d meant about the eyes..
It’s easy to get used to a story, expect something of a play, and become numb to its marvels. Productions with their novelties can help us see familiar things anew. But, just as teaching has made me remember just how cool literature is and why I’m researching, so sharing the plays with new audiences can make us see them in new lights. And what more apt a play than a play which is all about seeing, blindness, and of course eyes: King Lear.