December 17, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
King Lear (RSC) @ The New London Theatre
Trevor Nunn’s King Lear has been a thorn in my side for several months now. I saw it very early on in its initial run in Stratford and loved it, as my review clearly showed. Since then, however, the production has had a very strange reception. Frances Barber suffered an accident, causing the press night to be postponed for a couple of months, leaving critics baying for Trevor Nunn’s blood as they were denied the chance to see the season’s hot ticket early on. A scathing write-up by Germaine Greer made waves, and it seemed to be fashionable for a while to slate the production. Yet then press night came, and the reviewers by and large loved it, with 4 and 5 star reviews sweeping the board (The Independent being a notable exception). So now, nine months after my first viewing, I found myself again taking my seat for Lear, this time in the fancy New London Theatre. I’ve stayed loyal to the production all that time, prizing my immediate emotional response above the academic criticisms of my colleagues, but nonetheless I found myself feeling considerably more sceptical this time around. With a bit of distance, would the play be as good as I remembered?
The answer, typically, was yes and no, and perhaps nothing could have equalled the original experience. Firstly, I was now at the back of the auditorium rather than in the front row. The power and sheer volume of the production were greatly diminished as a result, especially in the grandiose organ-scored opening sequence and the thunderous battle scene later as explosions drove Gloucester close to madness. What were overpowering sensory experiences in the front row became merely good from the back. The matinee also experienced some difficulties- a gun failed to go off, Albany called Edmund ‘Edgar’ and, perhaps most ironically, Frances Barber was yet again indisposed. This latter posed no problem, with her more-than-adequate understudy Melanie Jessop yet again stepping into a major role, but it added to the feeling that the production was not living up to its full potential.
Elsewhere, I could see more clearly the complaints that people have raised about the production. There was a lot of ‘business’ to accompany the play, including a sequence wherein the Doctor was arrested along with Lear and Cordelia but forced to leave his medicine cabinet on stage, from where Goneril stole the poison which she used in Regan’s drink. It was neat, but unnecessary, and there was plenty of this kind of thing going on.
But still, I maintain it’s a great Lear, and I was pleased to see that the production still retained most of the strengths which warmed me to it last time. Ian McKellen gave a cracking performance which just got better as the play drew on, particularly in the scenes of his madness and his moments with Cordelia, and yet again I found myself gulping as he stroked the hair of his dead daughter. I also still found Sylvester McCoy’s Fool very moving, and it’s this production more than any other that showed me why the Fool is so important to the play. McCoy fulfilled the manic part of his job description with plenty of gusto, but it was the moments that revealed the old man underneath that worked best, as he threw down his wig, pleaded with his king and quietly stroked his hand as Regan and Goneril turned on him. The on-stage hanging had less impact this time around (inevitable when you know it’s coming), but the childish Fool plucking desperately at his master’s sleeve is an image that will remain with me.
Edgar and Edmund’s final battle was one of the best pieces of stage-fighting I’ve ever seen, a bravely extended piece of choreography that saw them crashing over furniture, upturning the table and wheeling around at great speed, and Ben Meyjes and Philip Winchester deserve great credit for their skill in this. I also enjoyed John Heffernan’s performance, which brought a good deal of humour to Oswald, particularly with his “Oh no….” as he lay tripped at the feet of Kent. William Gaunt’s Gloucester was another stand-out, particularly as he lay blind with the mad king, cradled in his arms.
It’s possible that one’s opinion on this production comes down to whether or not one likes Trevor Nunn’s style of direction. His was a busy vision, with lots going on both in terms of stage activity and character development, and he has an eye for reading between the lines of the text to find unspoken links between his characters. His reading also allowed little room for ambiguity, leaving you in no doubt that this is Trevor Nunn’s King Lear . A key example of this was his approach to religion- at every opportunity he emphasised the appealing of characters to the gods and their blind faith in the overall goodness of the powers that be, only to have their hopes cruelly and visibly dashed at the end: everyone still on stage knelt and held their hands up in supplication for the lives of Lear and Cordelia, and the tense pause was broken by Lear’s howls. There were no gods in this production, and Nunn made that abundantly clear.
This clarity and directness is a weakness or a strength, depending on your point of view. I found it a strength. Nunn’s vision of the play is not necessarily mine, but his was a thoroughly enjoyable and valid one, presented with conviction by the excellent cast. The story was told simply and effectively, yet was also filled with plenty of activity and interest, and every character received the appropriate attention. It’s a great production, and if they do go ahead with filming it (as I believe is on the cards), I will be eagerly awaiting the DVD.