Friday, 25 November 2016

Like a scurvy politician


Recently returned from five days in London (which I’ll blog about soon) but the prime motivation for going at this time of year was to witness Glenda Jackson in Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Old Vic Theatre. I saw her last onstage in Peter Brook’s production of Antony and Cleopatra in Stratford-upon-Avon at the RSC in 1978 (aware that she was a double-Oscar winner for 1969’s Women in Love and 1973’s A Touch of Class. Since retiring from acting at the top of her game, she has been a member of the UK Parliament from 1992 to 2015 (23 years of honorably serving Hampstead and Highgate/Kilburn.) I am a fan of her film performances. As well as her Oscar-winning films and the TV series Elizabeth R, I thought she was equally brilliant in Hedda, Stevie, Triple Echo, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Rainbow, The Music Lovers, Mary Queen of Scots {with Vanessa Redgrave} and The Patricia Neal Story.
Glenda Jackson from parliament to King Lear with Rhys Ifans as The Fool, Sargon Yelda as Kent and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia. Production photo credits: Manuel Harlan

Script as blueprint

Having seen King Lear with Sir Antony Sher recently, and blogged about it here, it was with some trepidation that I approached the play again so soon. I needn’t have worried – it was like a different play entirely, shorn of sentimentality, riven with intellectual decisions and riddled with disturbing and upsetting truths. Both productions were well worth seeing, in my view, though felt like entirely divergent works of art (as per Shakespeare’s genius and the way that any drama script is only a blueprint for theatrical interpretation.)
Lear: Glenda Jackson, Edmund: Simon Manyonda, Edgar: Harry Melling, Regan: Jane Horrocks, Cornwall: Danny Webb, Albany: William Chubb, Goneril: Celia Imrie, The Fool: Rhys Ifans, Ensemble/France: Matt Gavan, Gloucester: Karl Johnson. Production photo credits: Manuel Harlan

Like a scurvy politician

Any line in King Lear about power, ruling and politics had an extra resonance, given Glenda Jackson’s recent parliamentary career:
    Get thee glass eyes;    
And like a scurvy politician, seem    
To see the things thou dost not.
And the play’s devastating critique of the gap between rich and poor was fully potent in the mouths of actors like Glenda Jackson and Karl Johnson who played Gloucester:
So distribution should undo excess
And each man have enough.
Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
Harry Melling and Karl Johnson as Edgar and Gloucester; "I stumbled when I saw." Production photo credits: Manuel Harlan

Rage rage against the dying of the light

The Greg Doran production probably moved me more than this one by Deborah Warner, but this production made me think more angrily about the issues in the play. There were some theatrical and design decisions that were unsettling (probably intentionally so) and some performance moments that challenged my ideas about the play but as an experience it remained compelling to watch, probably intensified by sitting on the front row! The rest of the company all had their moments of stage glory but the abiding memory is of the towering performance by Glenda Jackson. This was a father raging against the dying of the light; a man who was frustrated that he was not being afforded the luxuries he expected to receive in his retirement; a king who discovered, alas too late, that his wilful rule had led to the most abject poverty (literal and metaphorical) in his kingdom. Glenda’s voice soared, swooped, growled, howled and machine-gunned every Shakespearean image and still left room for the soft caress of lines like
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness; so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we'll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out
And take upon us the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies….
Rhys Ifans as The Fool and Glenda Jackson as Lear. Production photo credits: Manuel Harl