March 31, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
King Lear (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
I don’t wish to come across as unprofessional, but this is going to be a very difficult review to write. Last night I sat in the front row for Trevor Nunn’s ‘King Lear’, and I still don’t feel as if I’ve entirely recovered. It was theatre as I’ve rarely experienced it- theatre that reaches inside your chest, tears out your heart and leaves you in severe emotional distress. It was also quite possibly the best thing I have seen in the last twelve months, and certainly the finest production I have EVER seen at the RSC.
From the start, Trevor Nunn set the tone with powerful organ music booming across the theatre from a backdrop that reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Phantom of the Opera’, with balcony, plush red curtain and chandelier, as the cast processed across the stage in state. Nunn had updated the play to an unspecified 18th-19th century background, the costumes a mix of late-regency/Napoleonic/Cossack military regimes. It was a setting that worked purely to the production’s advantage, particularly as the lush backdrop was gradually destroyed and the bare stage piled up with barricades and sandbags as the war blew up. An awe-inspiring war sequence saw the blinded Gloucester writhing in terror on the floor as lights flashed, guns crackled and explosions shook the theatre. In some ways, this was more akin to his world-beating musicals than his chamber Shakespeare, the production having the epic feel of a ‘Les Miserables’.
The acting quality was exactly what we have come to expect of Nunn’s unrivalled directorial output, and so we come to Sir Ian McKellen. Working entirely as part of an ensemble, rather than dominating the production, McKellen’s Lear was an intricate balance of opposing forces- the kindly father, the betrayed old man, the violent servant-beater, the confused madman and the dying man bereaved of his daughters. Clearly not content to rest on the laurels of an incredible career, he proved yet again why he’s known as the greatest Shakespeare actor of his generation with a performance that had several of the audience in tears, yet still drew laughs and gasps from us too. He was Lear, and the RSC was entirely justified in selling the production on him.
Anyone who knows me, though, knows how sceptical I am about the star system, and that there is no way I would be satisfied with a production that relied on its lead actor to carry it through. The cast were, individually and together, absolutely superb. Lear’s three daughters were highly individual, and Goneril in particular more sympathetic than usual, even giving a motherly embrace to Cordelia before she left the court. Cordelia, on the other hand, was at the start a silly little girl, who didn’t understand the consequences of the speech she was expected to meet and used the occasion to ridicule her father and sisters, laughing at the ludicrousness of the situation and not for one second expecting it to mean anything- her reaction as she was disinherited was one of utter shock and disbelief, staggering around the stage as her world collapsed. Far more modern- and far less drippy- than she often seems, she brought a breath of fresh air to the part.
A powerful Edgar, played by Ben Meyjes, gave an outstanding showcase of his talent, going from bookish to naked and Gollum-like to hardy servant to chivalric hero, flicking between accents impeccably and giving an emotional performance even when simply watching the older men talking. The stage fight was the best I have ever seen, and did credit to he and Philip Winchester’s Edmund, but especially to fights director Malcolm Ranson who created a very real and very exciting fight, with furniture and cups flying about, brother striking out in real rage and absolutely no sense of staginess about it.
Every time I think of Sylvester McCoy’s Fool, a tear wells up. Funny and moving at the same time, he redefined the role for me, giving a beautiful representation of a servant trying desperately to do his job in the face of overwhelming sorrow at his master’s deteriorating condition. Famous for playing the spoons, McCoy showed off this talent throughout, but by the time he was soaked through in the storm he was barely able to raise a smile anymore, shouting his jokes at Lear in frustrated hope. The first act ended with his collapsing onto a bench sobbing while Gloucester watched, before soldiers arrived to take the Earl away at gunpoint. Laughing at the wretched figure of the Fool, they stood him up and put a rifle to his head, before having a better idea. Taking him to a strut that stood stage-left, they stood him on a chair, put a rope around his neck and hanged him there and then. As the house lights came up for the interval, he continued to swing there the audience appalled at the sight, and he wasn’t taken down for some minutes. While this isn’t the first time the Fool has been hanged onstage, I doubt it has ever been quite so moving.
I could talk about this production for hours- the chilling moment where Kent marched off on his ‘journey with a pistol loaded, ready to end it as soon as he left our sight, the beautiful death scene that left the audience emotionally gutted and mostly unable to even stand for an ovation, the maid who was dragged offstage to be raped by Lear’s soldiers and was twitchy and petrified for the remainder of the play, the real downpour of water that drenched Lear and the Fool (and us!) and the excellent performance as Gloucester by William Gaunt, bloody onstage blinding included. My only criticism was the unjustifiably noisy and disruptive scene changes- the setting up of Edgar’s shelter at the back of the stage was so loud that I couldn’t even hear the scene at the front between Edmund and Cornwall (it sounds picky to criticise a scene change, but do ask anyone who was sitting in the side sections of the stalls, and they’ll agree). That doesn’t matter in the end, though, for this was a truly amazing experience. The hype, I humbly admit, was justified.