Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lear and his fool

That it was the penultimate outing of The Royal Shakespeare Company's King Lear cannot excuse the tiredness of the show. The cast did not betray weariness, and Ian McKellen's fallen king was a spinning top of rage and madness just as Frances Barber put the bitch in Goneril.

No, the problem was the direction and the production; the credits were all Will's and the cast's, the debits the off-stage team. This was not a Lear of ideas or innovation or even anything especially deep - there was nothing to indicate that the towering theatrical intelligence of Trevor Nunn was behind it. It was - and I shudder to say this - conventional.

First, praise where it is due. There can be no actor fitter for Lear than Ian McKellen, who makes a return to the stage after several years of drought (or Hollywood, as it's known). Swapping Magneto for majesty, he starts Lear off as an already frail, slightly juddering old man, whose infirmities are at least physically manifest. There is always an air of decrepitude around him, evoking sympathy even as he abuses his daughters and forces them to profess their love at a lectern.

His whirling mind is reified in his capering and leaping across the stage as the madness descends, and it is his complete lack of self-awareness which makes this so powerful. You do not get the sense McKellen is acting, making this a very natural portrayal. It fits well with his traumatised, childlike state, pacified because of what he has perceived. McKellen casts off (along with his clothes) any trace of artificiality and pierces right to Lear's marrow.

This convincing approach was undermined by the overpowering conventionality of the rest of the play. Of course the text speaks for itself and he's a fool who tampers with it, but where were the layers? It was just such a bald reading. Worse than this was the absence of subtlety, which assumed the audience were fools. Having Goneril swirl her poison into the wine-bottle, the Fool strung up by soldiers on stage, Kent marching off with his gun for the mission he cannot refuse - nothing was left ambiguous. There may as well have been neon signs.

The set and music were respectively heavy-handed and tin-eared. Having a crumbling set - the bunting is ripped away, the wallpaper begins to peel, the roof falls in - is hardly an original approach. It is the music which really allows us to see what RSC stands for - All Expense Spared. Would it have broken the bank to stick some real musicians in a recording booth for a day so that they had incidental music which didn't sound like it came from My First Keyboard? The music was jarring in two ways.

What was best was Shakespeare's, particularly (for me, this time) the complex intertwining of Lear's unwilling madness and Edgar/Poor Tom's assumed madness, the latter's physical manifestation of the former's mind. I had never grasped before just how well it works on stage to have the two madmen contrasted yet part of each other.

I'm glad I saw this, and only partially because it's the theatrical event of the year and more. McKellen is at the top of his craft and it would have been madness not to want to see him, and to this extent it is a rewarding production. But will it be the best Lear I ever see? I can't believe so.

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