Sunday 14 October 2012

King Lear at the Almeida, or, The Star's In Place But Not Much Else

Back at the tail end of last year I had this down as one of the shows I was most looking forward to in 2012, but I'm afraid this is a show that just doesn't live up to its advance prospects, for all sorts of reasons.

The first big problem is the design where Tom Scutt seems to have come over all Christopher Marthaler. This is the dullest thing to look at for three hours since the dreadful Bayreuth Tristan. The stage is basically bare for the entire show – apart from occasional pieces of furniture and the enormous and as far as I could see wholly pointless dead fox strung up at the back at one point in Act One. There is really no meaningful attempt to locate the action anywhere concrete – beyond some kind of ruined castle at some undetermined point. Scutt claims in his programme notes that “If you try and pin it [Lear] down or set it too tightly in a time and a place, it kicks like a mule.” Frankly, I wish it had kicked him harder.

If you're going to drain away the feeling of concrete and differentiated places from a production then you have to be able to replace them with more than usually effective management of your ensemble. They are going to have to create the world by speech and movement which the production has decided not to attempt. Unfortunately Michael Attenborough's direction falls down here. There's a sad lack of those crucial moments of tension that make truly great theatre. Indeed, one almost feels after a while as if one is watching old style stand and deliver. Moments in the second half when, for example, Goneril is being affectionate with Edmund, stand out starkly because there's not enough of such loaded physical connection elsewhere in the performance. The rare occasions when clear direction is in evidence tend to the bizarre. Other critics have commented that Attenborough's idea seems to be that Lear has sexually abused his elder daughters. This is brought out in one or two places but nowhere near consistently enough to make it work. In any case I am far from convinced that this is a viable interpretation – I find it difficult to see how we can sympathise with Lear as we really need to as the play goes on, if he has committed so vile a crime – and indeed one further wonders given that implication why Cordelia dotes on him. In short, on this showing at any rate, it is an interpretation that does too much violence to other parts of the text with not enough return from the places that it does illuminate. Elsewhere I felt too often that the text was passing Attenborough by – for example that marvellous moment when the Fool replays the “Nothing will come of Nothing” exchange which seems to me the point when Lear begins to recognise his folly goes for nothing in this staging.

Then we come to the problem of the performances and here again there is a major shortcoming, Jonathan Pryce's King Lear. I previously saw him on stage in Glengarry Glen Ross, in which he was magnificent, but the same can't be said here. He's at his best in the second half when Lear softens, and his recognition of Cordelia did bring tears to my eyes. But too much else doesn't come off. The main problem is, I think, that he starts much too loudly and there just isn't anywhere to go – by the time one gets to the madness I felt as if he'd been shouting at me for too long and I was rather disengaged from the whole situation.

Many of the rest of the cast have fine moments. Phoebe Fox's Cordelia, once she's been stripped of all is consistently moving. Clive Wood's Gloucester is at his best once he's been blinded. Chook Sibtain's Cornwall is suitably thuggish (but badly needs to work on his death which shouldn't be laughable – there is generally not nearly enough threat or blood in the violence). But in the end this production just doesn't build the relationship between them all with enough conviction – the text is all there and generally not badly spoken, but the subtext doesn't live.

There is fine potential in much of this cast, but in the end this is a production that comes periliously near, too much of the time, to making one indifferent to King Lear. And when one is forced to that conclusion it is clear that things have gone rather sadly awry.

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