Invite Lear onto your stage and you are asking for trouble. That is what the play and its beleaguered king are there for; trouble from beginning to end and readily found in man’s relations with just about everything around him; authority, legacy, the natural order of things, divinity, old age, ingratitude, family; oh yes, and the wretched English weather. If Shakespeare had availed himself more fully of the story’s grimly comedic openings, this surely would have come to belong to the category dubbed as problem plays by the Victorian critic F.S. Boas. As it is, with only the Fool to offer his (or in this case, her) darkly light relief, it remains firmly, if eccentrically, in the realm of tragedy.
The Richmond Shakespeare Society knows what it is taking on. Heavens, it is old enough. It’s foundation in 1934 makes it, like Lear, four score and upwards. Exposed to the elements it is not, having long been settled into the delightful little Mary Wallace Theatre beside the Thames at Twickenham.
Because of the play’s fabled universality, it has always been the case that you can hardly move for contemporary relevance. In such a period of global displacement, enforced mendicancy and plain old-fashioned cruelty, there are times when the text hits you in the eyes with – apologies to Gloucester – blinding accuracy. Hence director Simon Bartlett’s sparing design concept delivers an open and non-specific space, a debatable landscape appropriate to the play’s greater and lesser arguments about who runs what and, yes, the desirability of merged kingdoms within this small island.
In this minimalism there is a big, constructive But. It is called the moon, or should that be the sun? Whatever, this vital aspect of the production is nothing if not maximalist – a mighty, in-your-face sphere of influence, worldly in shape but wayward in application. At one moment it is a plain disc, blank with possibility and shining like the old gong in the J. Arthur Rank features; then it is a seething blood-orange, a loony crescent of cheese, a terrible horned head. A right old pagan shape-shifter in fact, now a guiding light, now a whimsical beacon, always a central character in this many-sourced mash of tales in which the sighted blind are struggling for portents.
Since so much of the play’s world-weight rests on its (anti-) hero’s shoulders, how does this king make out? Bearing in mind that you have to get to know him in the throes of his private fallibility before you can sympathise with him in the cosmic horror of his end, it is a weird long haul of a role. Craig Cameron-Fisher inhabits it first with a muted, dodgy dignity, leaving him with the necessary reserve of dynamics for the unforgiving climax. Here, at the heel of the hunt, surrounded by the full Jacobean roll-call of corpses, and fancying he sees something, or someone, out there who is neither the moon nor the sun, he hits a tremendous note of piteous grandeur. He has to of course, or else the play is left void even of emotional catharsis. This imperative has never made it any less of a monstrous challenge. The night I saw it a palpable tremor ran through Richmond’s normally stable ground.
When Donald Sinden played the part, he asked for nothing except a light Cordelia. In Trine Taraldsvik, Cameron-Fisher has one who is weighty only where it really matters, in the difficult portrayal of virtue’s plain symptoms. Likewise Tom Shore in the deceptively challenging role of Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar. Noble performances too from Barry Langford as Kent and Adam Cobby as Gloucester, whose blinding I found it, forgive me, impossible to watch. There is an interesting feminisation of the Fool, played by Dorothy Duffy as a sort of ragged fairground queen, entitled here through the added distance of gender to speak truth unto power.
I’m not sure Bartlett knew quite what to do with the sundry silent presences during the foreground exchanges of others, but then nor am I sure whether Shakespeare himself addressed the problem either. I can understand why both Tolstoy and Shaw disliked him, rather in the manner of nobility resenting the king. A touch of the Iagos for sure, but I can’t help thinking that what these knowing craftsmen really envied was the man’s uncanny flare for eloquent disorder.
Review by Alan Franks
by William Shakespeare
directed by Simon Bartlett
Few would dispute that King Lear is one of the supreme works of mankind. If Shakespeare had written nothing else, this single play would ensure his immortality.
From the age old starting point of fathers and their children, Shakespeare has created a masterpiece that draws the personal, the political, the mythic and the cosmic into an astonishing and terrifying drama of humanity and inhumanity. It reaches back to the oldest of legends, yet is all too real to our news battered 21st century world – and breaks your heart.
As King Lear begins losing his sanity and all he holds dear, his abdication of power starts to hit home. His worst imaginings and fears come true and there is no way for him but to flee the social order he has disrupted and head into the natural world that is now as broken as the political one.
7th – 14th November 2015