June 2, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

King Lear @ Shakespeare’s Globe

Putting on a tragedy at the Globe is a substantial challenge. The space, open to the elements and with much of the audience standing only feet away from the actors, invites laughter and participation rather than sober reflection or sadness. It is testament to the strengths of Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole and his team, then, that the Globe’s new Lear was largely a triumphant one, striking an ideal balance between tragedy and comedy that kept its audience entertained while losing none of the play’s raw power.

The basic approach that has characterised the Globe’s recent work (period costume, period instruments, straightforward storytelling) worked well in the production’s favour. Where Trevor Nunn’s RSC production packed the scenes and scene changes with additional business, Dromgoole instead favoured a fast and fluid approach with each scene melting into the next without pause. The almost total lack of set aided this and focused attention on the actors, for this was a production concerned primarily with performances and clarity.

Although this was emphatically an ensemble production, David Calder’s Lear still dominated. He was a still-powerful Lear, upright and with resounding voice. He paced the stage in the opening scene as he invited his daughters to speak, and advanced on Kent and Cordelia as they defied him, even drawing against Kent. His physical activeness was hampered by the onset of madness rather than by bodily decline, losing the certainty of direction and purpose that characterised him in earlier scenes. Even in the throes of insanity he still had a powerful presence, cradling the blind Gloucester as he wept and recognising him in a voice that bordered on condescending. In prison with Cordelia he was yet again the comforter, pulling her close to him and happily consoling her before leading her off, flanked by Edmund’s soldiers. Right up to the end he maintained a strength of body, kneeling over Cordelia and actively looking for signs of life before a heart attack, or similar, struck him down. His strength throughout was striking, and his authority rarely diminished.

The other stand-out performances came from Trystan Gravelle’s Edgar and Ashley Rolfe’s Oswald, in very different ways. Gravelle took Edgar on an impressive journey throughout the play, going from a shrieking comic coward in his first appearances, easily gulled by Daniel Hawksford’s solid Edmund, through his transformation into the bloodied and near-naked Poor Tom to the noble helmeted knight who faced his brother in the climactic duel. Through these, the audience were able to watch Edgar’s confidence and strength gradually grow, the Poor Tom episode becoming a learning curve in independence for him. His Tom was relatively lucid, often discoursing matter-of-factly with Lear, and every experience had in his various disguises – the attempted suicide of his father, the killing of Oswald, the witnessing of Lear’s madness – contributed to the creation of the sensitive yet heroic figure who took his place at Albany’s side at the close. Rolfe, on the other hand, gave a flamboyantly comic performance as Oswald, wearing what appeared to be an upside-down flowerpot on his head. Petulant and sycophantic, Oswald was a slimy servant and abject coward, running screaming away from Kent. He came to a suitably nasty end at Edgar’s hand – drawing his sword against the unarmed “peasant”, Edgar unbuckled his belt and looped it in order to grab the sword and cast it away. He then proceeded to throttle Oswald brutally, Oswald improbably choking out his final instructions to deliver the letter to Edmund before both collapsed, Oswald dead and Edgar in tears.

These bloody moments were suitably shocking. The goriest eye-gouging I’ve ever seen on stage was inflicted on Joseph Mydell’s Gloucester, Cornwall simply kneeling on Gloucester’s lap, raising his hand and drawing out a bloody eyeball, complete with broken stem, to universal shudders from the audience. Regan removed the second eye, and both smeared themselves with blood in pleasure. At the other end of the violent scale, Edgar and Edmund’s duel was expertly choreographed, starting on an outcrop of the stage that extended into the middle of the audience (causing several people to duck out of the way of flailing swords) and finishing on the main stage after an impressive physical display that earned one of two spontaneous rounds of applause (the other being reserved for Kent’s insulting of Oswald earlier).

One of the more creative artistic decisions came in the wonderful storm that Dromgoole and composer Claire van Kampen created for the play’s centrepiece. The band used drums, thunder machines and wind machines to create a deafening cacophony of noise that even Lear had to shout over to be heard, a simple but effective din that really did resemble the noises of thunder. To accompany the chaos, Dromgoole created a chorus of ‘Bedlamites’, bloodied half-naked figures like Poor Tom who emerged from trapdoors and moved among the audience, grinning and gurning, climbing the totem poles that stood at the front corners of the stage and creating an unsettling atmosphere in the pit. Some carried water machines, poles that they shook back and forth to create the noise of rainfall, meaning the storm could be heard in something approaching surround sound. It was breathtakingly effective and a real insight into how effective old methods of creating effects can be.

The audience also responded noisily to the plentiful comedy that the company wrung out of several scenes. Paul Copley’s bluff Kent was responsible for much of this, his no-nonsense attitude towards everyone else always a delight. Danny Lee Wynter, in his professional debut as the Fool, was also very amusing in an intelligent and thought-provoking way. His relationship with Lear, jiggling the King on his knee at one point, meant that even his more pointed remarks went without punishment, but their impact was not lost on the audience. The Fool’s acute observations cut through the laughter and signified the direction in which Lear’s actions were taking him. Ultimately, the Fool’s story became less funny as Lear’s madness overtook him, and in the hovel Lear ended up eventually throttling the Fool angrily, leaving him breathless and almost motionless on the floor. It was only as Lear left that the Fool slowly picked himself off and pointedly ran out the other way, never to be seen again during the play.

More serious moments like this demonstrated the skill of both actors and director in pitching tragedy to the crowd. Crucially, they used silence. Lear and Jodie McNee’s Cordelia were both excellent in their use of quiet at moment of particular severity or tenderness, allowing their looks and movements to do the work while the audience, in response, also grew quiet and still. Perhaps most moving was Cordelia and Lear’s first meeting after her banishment. Lear was brought in on a wheeled stretcher, and Cordelia took several long pauses, clenching her eyes shut and turning towards the audience, before finally turning to look at him and gasping at his frail state. Later, their love for each other dominated the end of the war, the two holding on to each other and finding their comfort there.

Cordelia was straightforwardly good and saintly, and her refusal to lie in her initial interview was commendable, if a little abrupt. Goneril and Regan, however, were more complex. Both younger than often played, the two were perfectly dutiful in the initial scenes, despite voicing their worries about their father’s increasing irrationality. Later, a mock hunt within Goneril’s walls justified her concern, and her argument with her father clearly upset her. It was only after this point, after the sisters had exchanged letters, that the nastier sides of their characters started to emerge, taking some pleasure in their father’s anger and being turned against each other through their mutual infatuation with Edmund. The sexuality of both started to become more apparent, Goneril licking her lips at the thought of her affair while Regan pressed Oswald suggestively to her in an attempt to see his letter. Their self-destructive path led no doubts as to the end they were heading towards.

In a final surprise, though, Dromgoole created a final redemptive moment for his characters, an uplifting end that could have been awful but was in fact moving. As the bodies lay and Albany, Edgar and Kent bowed their heads, a Celtic lament began (singing throughout was provided by the excellent Pamela Hay), and the rest of the cast appeared from the tiring house, moving slowly forward and starting to join in with the lament. As they sang, Edgar approached Edmund’s body while Albany and Cornwall approached those of their wives. They all touched their partner gently, the bodies stirred and they were helped up. Goneril and Regan then in turn went to Cordelia and raised her together, and finally Cordelia woke her father, all joining in the singing. Building to a crescendo, the characters were finally united in a place that transcended life and death, where things seemed forgiven. It was entirely un-textual, of course, but a fascinating end that didn’t feel out of keeping with the play’s bleakness, and the audience hugely appreciated it. The final dance and curtain calls were greeted ecstatically, a thoroughly-deserved response to an excellent production.

This review was originally written for Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review