November 6, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

King Lear (Headlong) @ The Everyman Theatre

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Rupert Goold’s new production of King Lear is a particularly major event for the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, the small repertory theatre with a longstanding reputation for excellence. One of the central events of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture, the production brings together one of the nation’s most prominent young directors and a star name in the shape of Pete Postlethwaite, returning to the theatre where he first made his name. The run in Liverpool precedes a transfer to London’s Young Vic, and will no doubt bring a great deal of well-deserved attention to the Everyman. It’s a great shame, then, to find the production such a disappointment.

At the centre of the production’s problems was a fundamental lack of coherence. Goold chose a contemporary setting for the play, with the apparent intent of reflecting ideas of modern Englishness back at the audience; but the concept was messily realised in a production that consistently chose style over substance. The modern updates felt arbitrary and superficial, a key example being Lear’s knights. The idea of making them into football hooligans with painted faces was clearly inspired by the reports of their rowdiness; but why would an old man be touring the country with a retinue of football louts? Why did their apparent uncontrollable anarchy then give way to standing quietly and politely taking orders? Why did they get rifles? This problem recurred throughout the play as modernisations were chosen for their initial visual impact but then ignored rather than integrated into the play’s aesthetic.

The play was packed full of ideas which were poorly realised. An anonymous ‘Boy’ followed Lear prominently before defecting to Cornwall’s army, all with little apparent reason, his blank face giving nothing away. Kent was made an Anglican vicar to no discernible purpose (and actually jarring with his later actions). The Fool (Forbes Masson on top form) gave a high-powered and deeply scathing performance in the first half of the play, commenting effectively on Lear’s stupidity, and fell into a sombre sobriety as he watched his master lose his mind. However, the Fool was kept alive and on stage beyond his disappearance from the text, taking over the Doctor’s lines. His shift to complete sanity was fluid, but rather undermined the effectiveness of his earlier scenes, the character becoming extremely dull. It appeared eventually that he had been kept alive simply to give Edmund the opportunity to callously shoot him in the head while telling a knock-knock joke, but this cheap piece of violence came at the expense of the Fool’s dramatic relationship with the King.

A far more effective idea was making Goneril pregnant. Here, at last, was a decision that gave a character a clear arc and motivation, her stance against her father stemming at least in part from a maternal instinct to protect her brood from the rowdy football fans. Lear’s curse of sterility and barrenness was rendered horrific, he pointing at her swollen belly and effectively calling for the unborn child’s immediate death. After giving birth in the storm, the baby itself became a focus; Albany (a pathetic drip of a man) was left holding the child while Goneril dallied with Edmund, and Edmund himself addressed the baby, holding up cuddly toys to its pram while he equivocated between the two sisters. The off-stage screaming of the baby at the play’s end as the lights went down was a fitting end, and it was only to be wished that the production had more firmly committed to this aspect of its concept, rather than muddying it with the other confused business.

Postlethwaite himself gave a solid performance as Lear, particularly drawing out the character’s humour. The first scene became a birthday buffet for the king, who entered in casual suit and played host, speaking into a microphone and setting up the declarations of love as a form of karaoke. Reappearing in his next scene in a cardigan, he was every inch the retired father rather than the king. This was also a failing, however; the setting divested Lear of any sense of regal authority even in his earlier scenes, he always being more of a dad-figure than a monarch, and thus the production became unbalanced. I’ve never seen a production of Lear in which the central character was so pushed to the margins, partly due to the histrionic performances in the subplots which further cast Postlethwaite’s scenes into shadow. The comedy of the character was pushed further by having him appear in a flowery dress when meeting Gloucester, removing the sense of pathetic dignity that the scene usually inspires and turning him more into a straightforward comedian, that again distracted from the tragedy of the character’s decline. 

The other older characters were better served. John Shrapnel was an unusually feisty Gloucester. Wearing a tracksuit, we saw him ‘training’ Edgar and Edmund, timing them with a stopwatch as they performed press-ups and jogged. His inclination to activity was further demonstrated by Edmund having to physically restrain him from going to immediately attack Edgar after reading the letter given to him by Edmund. Once blinded, with his ability to act on his active impulses, his suicidal tendencies were a natural progression, and his frustration at still being alive after his ‘fall’ was heartfelt. Interestingly, though, even when blind he was still capable of action; he intervened in the brawl between Oswald and Edgar, leaping on Oswald and stabbing him in the stomach, allowing Edgar to finish him off. Nigel Cooke’s Kent was similarly active. While the fact of his being a priest was conveniently ignored after the first scene (one wonders why they used that idea in the first place), in disguise he became a feisty, flat-capped Northerner with an aggressive demeanour. When challenging Oswald at Gloucester’s house, Oswald initially laughed in his face, mocking the old man’s readiness to fight, but after being shoved in the chest he became more genuinely scared of the old man.

The younger characters, however, were less strong, relying more on hysterics for impact. Charlotte Randle’s Regan was decent in her earlier scenes, with confident poise and a casual disregard for her father, but during the blinding of Gloucester the hysterics began, taking sexual delight in the torture and – in a particularly gruesome moment – tearing Gloucester’s second eye out with her teeth, to Cornwall’s stunned horror. Caroline Faber’s Goneril was more restrained, but as the play drew to its close both sisters began to rely on histrionics, getting louder and louder as their battle over Edmund reached its pitch. Edmund, a heavily accented Irishman played by Jonjo O’Neill, was played at top speed throughout the play, which worked well in soliloquy but rather rushed over all his machinations and scheming. By the final scene this performance was also over-acted, he lying in a pool of blood and screaming his various revelations hysterically at the rest of the cast. 

Perhaps the most disappointing performance, though, was Tobias Menzies’ Edgar. He was entirely passive and blank in his first few appearances, allowing himself to be completely moulded and manipulated by Edmund. His performance as Poor Tom was borderline offensive, relying on traditional playground representations of mental disability (tongue tucked in lower lip, smacking back of wrist with hand etc.) for ‘madness’, which I found extremely uncomfortable, particularly as a group of schoolchildren in the audience fell into hysterics. Menzies was better as his Poor Tom disguise was cast off, bringing some pathos into his scenes with his father, but all the good work was cast off in the awful concept adopted for the final duel with Edmund, for which the entire tone of the play switched to ugly travesty. At the third blast of a toy trumpet, Edgar appeared with his face masked by an England flag and carrying two plastic swords. The two brothers flapped their swords at each other, Edmund scorning the toy weapons, before they tussled and Edgar forced his sword down Edmund’s throat, effectively choking him on the plastic (yet not preventing Edmund screaming his story for several minutes afterwards, another incongruity). Quite why Edgar would want to take such an irreverent attitude towards the fight was a mystery considering the character’s progression to that point, and the whole scene instead felt crude and gratuitous.

This was a sorely disappointing Lear, which seemed to have very little of interest to say about the play and instead relied on incongruent images and gimmicks to accompany the text. The entire tone of the production felt out of keeping with the formal set-up (the performance lasted three and a half hours, with two intervals) and the relatively dignified central performance was undermined by a crude and ineffective approach to the rest of the play. Flashes of inspiration failed to be bound together by a sense of purpose. This was an early performance, and hopefully the production will grow – there’s definitely potential – , but for now it appeared to simply lack a clear sense of what it wanted to be.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review