Tuesday, 20 September 2016

And each man have enough

Greg Doran's RSC production of King Lear

A play for our times

I have seen Shakespeare’s King Lear on stage over a dozen times and it is always a harrowing experience (sometimes for negative reasons but often for powerful and profound reasons.) The recent Royal Shakespeare Company production by Greg Doran, in Stratford-upon-Avon (soon to be in cinemas and in London,) reveals fresh ideas about particular lines and characters but, more than I’ve ever felt before, it strikes me as a play that needs to be understood by the current government. An elderly audience member from Liverpool sitting next to me, a man I didn’t know, was moved to turn to me at the end and say “all politicians who favour austerity as a policy should be forced to see this.”

Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, Antony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester, Antony Byrne as Kent, Paapa Essiedu as Edmund, Natalie Simpson as Cordelia

Reason not the need

Faithful (disguised) son Edgar leading blinded (deceived) father Gloucester
As Lear’s power is stripped away, literally and metaphorically, Lear begins to see humans for the “poor, bare, forked” animals they are and he realises that, as the king, he has “taken too little care of this.” The trajectory of Lear’s journey on stage is from the pomp of his court where he controls land and distributes wealth to the blighted English countryside where he is a broken, homeless, poor and hungry beggar looking for shelter. From king to beggar in two hours…. Doran's production charted this journey vividly. 


How much is enough? How much (Money? Shelter? Clean Water? Food? Safety? Entertainment?) is enough to live a civilised life? How much money does a banker need to live a happy life? How much welfare does a disabled veteran need to survive with dignity? What about a rich and generous benefactor who gives plenty to charity? Or an unemployed drug addict who is suffering because of parental abuse? Who has the right to make judgements about what rich people do with their money or who can judge the vulnerable person who relies on the state to keep them alive? Well…. Governments claims the right by taking and using taxes from workers and loans from financial institutions. Governments make judgements and then create legal and financial policies based on those judgements. The government distributes the country’s revenue as a result of the judgements they make. Like King Lear. Lear makes judgements in the first scene of the play and the consequent unfolding tragedy destroys the kingdom and his three daughters as well as himself.
Faces of Antony Sher: as Richard III, as Tamburlaine, as The Roman Actor, as Macbeth with Harriet Walter, as Falstaff, as Leontes with Alexandra Gilbreath as Hermione

Sir Antony Sher

Sher played Lear as a horribly vain tyrant at the beginning summoning curses from an ancient religion at which the younger characters rolled their eyes. By the end he became a vulnerable dad who had seen into the abyss and realised his part in its creation. The ancient religion no longer produced a drum roll on cue, just silence and a bleak "Nothing." Sir Antony Sher’s line delivery of Shakespeare always sounds to me as if the play he is performing had been written yesterday and his character is working everything out there and then. Sher makes me hear the play as well as see it. A great performance, I think, all the more remarkable since he was in the first production of King Lear I ever saw playing The Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear.
Antony Sher's own painting of himself as The Fool and with his Lear, Michael Gambon, as the modern tragic hero-fool, Willy Loman, and now, as Lear, with his own Fool, Graham Turner

Gwynne, Williams, Simpson

Where is a girl’s mother when you need her? The three sisters (Nia Gwynne as Goneril, Kelly Williams as Regan and Natalie Simpson as Cordelia) all suggested complicated back stories of the need to be loved by their omnipotent (but old-fashioned) father. The elder two daughters were definitely more “sinned against than sinning” in the first half of the play. Goneril’s anxiety and Regan’s desperation were more affecting than Cordelia’s rather steely “I know I’m right” attitude in the opening love trial, which made the arcs of the three sisters more complicated than usual. By the end Cordelia broke my heart and the emerging viciousness of Goneril and Regan was palpable but the opening scenes of this production didn’t foreground the final destination of the sisters. Excellent interpretations.
Nia Gwynne as Goneril, Natalie Simpson as Cordelia, Kelly Williams as Regan

Byrne, Troughton, Essiedu, Johnstone

Antony Byrne was a convincingly loyal (“blunt and saucy”) Kent. The magnificent David Troughton was a tough, vigorous and then traumatised (blinded) Gloucester and his sons were memorable: Paapa Essiedu fresh from Hamlet, was an insinuating and attractive Edmund and Oliver Johnstone, topping even his sensual Iachimo in Cymbeline, was a gullible and then truly heroic Edgar, both in his Poor Tom disguise and his knight-protector role, duelling his half-brother Edmund to Edmund’s death. (“The wheel is come full circle.”) Sometimes at the end of King Lear I feel that the remaining world will not be safe in Edgar’s hands but at the end of this production I felt Oliver Johnstone had taken his father’s words into his heart:
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
Long Live King Edgar!
Lears: Brian Cox (with David Bradley), Timothy West, David Calder, Wu Hsing Kuo, Frank Langella, Nigel Hawthorne, Warren Mitchell, Pete Postlethwaite, Jonathan Pryce (with Phoebe Cox), David Warner, John Shrapnel (with Trevor Cooper), Greg Hicks, Tom Courtenay, Corin Redgrave (with David Hargreaves), Derek Jacobi, David Hayman (with Owen Whitelaw), Simon Russell Beale, Nonso Anozie, Ian McKellen, Tim Piggot-Smith and David Haig