Whilst not one of my true favourites, Lear’s a play I know quite well and which, having a taste for Tragedy more than Comedy, I enjoy. I studied it at University, and I’ve seen at least two stagings before that I can remember. The first, at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival some years back, was memorable for the blinding of Gloucester, which involved one of his eyeballs being sucked out. I’ve got a great photo of it (with a stretched ‘optical nerve’ leading from eye socket to mouth) which I often use to frighten children who claim that Shakespeare is boring. The second performance starred Derek Jacobi. The most striking things about it were Jacobi’s unsatisfyingly-camp Lear, and the use of strobe lighting to great effect in recreating the storm. Reading it, I’m always struck by Edmund‘s louche sexuality, and that always seems to have been missing. What did I want today? Hubris, wanton cruelty, ingratitude, and ‘the Globe experience‘ …
‘The Globe experience’? This wasn’t my first visit, but it was my first play there. Why do people go to the Globe? Why did I feel so excited about my trip?
I wanted, simply, to suspend my disbelief entirely. To spend three hours transported to the early 17th century, and feel, as close as I ever will, what it was like to stand in the yard with a cross-section of society and view the plays as they might have been staged then. Simply; with the audience being asked to participate in bringing the play to life with their imaginations. I wanted to feel part of the performance, in the same way that football fans are an essential element of the atmosphere at games. I wanted to avoid any modern-day bells and whistles (that is, I think, why many people visit The Globe, and why Emma Rice‘s appointment was so ill-advised and doomed to failure – square peg, round hole and all that). Lastly, I wanted to be able to get a decent view: my main worry, at 5ft 5in, was that some enormous lummox would stand right in front of me – it always happens at gigs!
With the over-riding worry about actually being able to see the performance, I got into the yard relatively early, and took up a spot directly behind a metal cage which was filled with old sleeping bags and had a tray of brown gloop in it, which I rightly guessed would be used later. It was the refuge Edmund (Joshua James) took as he transformed to Poor Tom, and he spent about ten minutes sitting absolutely motionless under a sleeping bag. Most importantly, it meant a gap of 4-5 feet in front of me which no-one could invade! It was humid, and the sun was uncomfortable, although a quick glance at the sky suggested I’d be in shade within an hour or so. A man next to me fascinated me whilst I waited, with the elaborate construction of a visored sun hat using pages from an Isle of Wight travel brochure, complete with sellotape and scissors which he just happened to be carrying with him. My new friend turned out to be Michael, over from Germany, and we discussed stagings of plays over there, his last experience at the Globe (which worryingly concluded with some sort of ‘breakdancing’ at the end, and the ways in which Shakespeare makes you think, in ways that lots of modern entertainment doesn’t. Elsewhere, the crowd was an eclectic and colourful mix of ages, nationalities, genders and costume. Being in the yard felt reassuringly inclusive, and I’m guessing that the 700 £5 tickets facilitate this.
Director Nancy Meckler wreathed the Globe’s stage dressing in white sacking, which was enthusiastically ripped off as the entire cast, in the guise of homeless people or Occupy protestors, noisily arrived on stage. This preceded a dumb show in which Kevin R McNally was nominated the Lord of Misrule for the performance. It felt like an attempt to see the play from the viewpoint of the people that Lear can only empathise with once he’s lost everything: but the point made, it was never really reinforced, so it felt more like a token gesture than a production with ‘something to say’. On the other hand, maybe Meckler was trying to say something about Emma Rice’s tenure, which is drawing towards its close? The last bit of stage dressing was ripped off at the end, just before the cast, back in protestor guise, left the stage. Was there a subliminal message about the Globe being handed back to the establishment, with the exit of the rebellious Rice?
At least there was no breakdancing, although electric amplification of some of the music/percussion and the use of lighting during the storm section distracted me a bit. One of the newspaper reviews I have read complained about the circling drummers who created the thunder, but I found them effective: menacing and implacable in their assault on Lear and his vastly diminished cohort. Probably the most thrilling piece of staging was when a number of lanterns and torches were used to create the illusion of night-time in the early afternoon. Sadly, the blinding of Gloucester was lame in its execution, though. Perhaps I was just spoiled by the gory verisimilitude of the Cambridge production The atmosphere itself was quieter than I thought it would be – lots of quiet ‘knowing’ laughter, which I always find a little irritating – it feels like virtue signalling: ‘Hey everyone, I can understand what’s going on’. Translation gets no marks from me in essays, and this was equally annoying. There were a few giggles as Edmund and Edgar discussed eclipses, in view of the one in the US the previous day. There was only one unified expression of sorrow and pity, which I’ll refer to later. One other thing – in 17th century mode I’d imagined the noises from the river, from the bear-baiting, from the audience itself. What I hadn’t banked on was two helicopters hovering directly above the stage for about 3 minutes and completely drowning out the on-stage action. Bastards. I thought I could sense the actors, Saskia Reeves (Kent) in particular, looking for a clue as to whether they should halt or press on. No cue came, so I think we all lost some of the dialogue.
So far, so average. But there was nothing average about Kevin R McNally‘s performance as Lear. His performance effectively and sensitively captured the despair of a once powerful man railing against his increasing sense of irrelevance. There was real anger and yet at the same time futility in his pointing and fist-shaking gesticulations at the wanton gods who proved so remote and indifferent to his plight. He was utterly believable in his misery, and really found the heartbreak in the howl which heralded his arrival carrying the dead Cordelia [spoiler!] His was the emotional highlight of the day for me – the perfect moment when I sensed the play having a life of its own, with everyone on and off stage united. It came when he threatened his two daughters in act II scene iv:
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall- I will do such things-
What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!
A whip-like transformation from fury to impotence provoked a ripple of laughter which almost immediately and universally turned to a groan of real sympathy.
Elsewhere the performances were mixed. Edmund (Ralph Davies) was suitably villainous but never really sexy enough for me, or indeed for Goneril (Emily Bruni) and Regan (Sirine Saba). I never got a sense before the almost laughably-stylised sex scenes he had with each sister that they’d found him the least bit attractive. This may have been down to the sisters themselves. They were also played as entirely aloof with each other, to the extent that their initial cooperation left me cold. I wanted, maybe needed, telling eye contact between them in the early parts of the play, but didn’t get it. Bruni was distant and unemotional throughout, whereas Saba turned the insincerity all the way up to 11 in declaring her love for her father. Joshua James prompted nervous laughter with his madness, and transformed well from nice-but-dim at the beginning to someone ready to lead those who remained at the end. Anjana Vasan didn’t really convince me as Cordelia. McNally was far more natural with his body language when the two were together, and she always seemed a bit awkward with him in return – perhaps echoing their opening exchange. Probably the best of the supporting cast was Saskia Reeves as Kent. I’ve heard her perform on the radio many times but not seen her. I think she nailed the loyal and decent adviser.
Overall, therefore, McNally carried the day. His performance made me think about my father, it made me think about myself as the father of two sons in their late teens. I walked with Lear on his journey, recognising lots of the steps on it, really feeling for him as a human; a man paying an awful price for honest errors of judgement, as his powers diminish. Here was a man truly raging against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas would have put it. Ultimately, though, McNally stood out in contrast to the relative drabness of the production, which was almost as begrimed as the stage was as the play began.