This week we saw King Lear at the Old Vic. theatre on Wednesday and on Thursday we saw The Red Barn at the National Theatre. I misunderstood the tickets my friend bought for me because I thought that we were going to see the first preview of King Lear starring Antony Sher, which was completely wrong. This production starred Glenda Jackson-actress turned politician-turned actress again, and what a powerhouse she was! I mean, at 80 years old, that’s incredible! I will not dedicate a whole post to this performance because I think I would only dwell on the disappointments rather than trying to find the positives.
The Fool and King Lear are extremely tender together. I believe that due to the actresses age, there was an increased focus on Lear’s debilitating health than many productions have. The Fool would joke with Lear in an increasingly hesitant manner. With every joke came a subtle glance back at the king to make sure that he was okay. Lear is closest to Cordelia and to his Fool, but I never felt like Lear was ever really connected to Cordelia. There is the common misunderstanding that Lear should still be a commanding and powerful presence, which seems like a total disregard for the character’s age and health. The youngest daughter Cordelia remained extremely earnest and annoyingly innocent throughout the production. Nobody is perfect, Cordelia, and I think it is one of the actresses challenges to find and show Cordelia’s flaws so that she does not seem so gosh darn unrealistic. Here is an example of my inner-Goneril rearing its ugly head.
Edmund and Edgar were truly troubled children. Between them there are so many questionable choices that you could spend a whole presidential Q&A trying to decipher their artistic choices. Edmund, what show are you even in, man? Although it’s cool to have the story of “Oh I saw that actor on stage!” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they did a good job. If you are familiar with Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series, then I can now say that I have not only seen him perform, but I have seen him perform naked. Ah, yes. His inexplicable and unnecessary nudity was really the cherry on top that this show needed to make me cringe even more. It was unfortunate to hear that he is well known for his stage acting here in the UK, because if he was known for anything, it seems he should be well known for extremely mediocre acting. I think what went wrong is he and the director decided on too many risky choices. Some of them were carried through fully, and some were partially pushed in in an attempt to add dimension to the character. Edmund was just an incredibly huge mess of bad acting choices and caused plenty of confused moments in the audience. He truly seemed to be a part of a different show because of how odd his acting contrasted with the rest of the cast. Most of the older actors (50 and above) were very good, but the younger actors were all pretty bad, which was really unfortunate.
For the storm scene (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks…”) a large black backdrop of garbage bag consistency made a very cool design. As the storm raged the “bags” flowed and waved as Ms. Jackson stomped through the set. As the characters are seeking refuge, a corner of the “garbage” set lifted to create a hovel. The garbage bag tempest and hovel was very cool and original, although the stage mainly stayed bare and boring for the rest of the performance. The Old Vic. is a huge stage, and because of the gaping spaces around the actors, it really distracted from the scene and took away from the performance. If you’re not going to improve the stillness by moving, then why provide wide spaces of stillness to distract the audience? Another thing that took away from the performance was the lack of diction from several actors. It seemed like a mixed shortage of dialect work, comprehension of text, and volume. You can’t assume the technicians will do all the work for you!
The Red Barn is a Hitchcock-style thriller that takes the visual and acting film styles onto the stage. With every scene transition, the “curtain” moved like a camera lens, or like the roaming bullet in the 007 theme. When it re-opened we never saw the full stage, only what the “eye” wanted us to see, which usually took up a third of the stage. There was an unsaid agreement between the production and the audience that we (the audience) would have a longer patience for scene transitions because we knew how large of a set was being moved. In size, it was very similar to having several small train carriages being swiftly moved in and out of position by a series of cables. During these transitions there was usually some music or a character speaking before the scene opened up which also helped distract from the transitions. I honestly did not think the transitions were annoyingly long at all, but that is what I have heard from several peers.
Because the sets were much more focused, this meant that the actors could (and needed) to use much more subtle acting choices than what is usually used in large theaters like these. The play was extremely realistic, so of course broad or the “musical theatre” styles of acting are not encouraged, as they would create a stark contrast between the intimate framed scenes and the overbearingly dramatic acting styles. Although the film acting technique was more appropriate for this performance, it did take away from many possibilities of excitement.Slow, calculated, and monotone are the three words perfectly describing the actors’s voices in this show. Each character spoke with a droning monotone that did not fill the theatre or provide climactic excitement necessary for some of the pivotal scenes. Very similar to Hitchcock’s characters, this play’s vocal tempo was the same as a ticking clock or a slow metronome.
I couldn’t help but pull comparison between the female characters in this play and the female characters in Hitchcock’s films. They all shared a cold and calculating facade that hides their naivety and fear. And they were all blonde. The author of the original novel and Hitchcock are both pressed with charges of misogyny in their writing/casting because of how these women are portrayed. Georges Simenon, the author, lived a life much more misogynistic than his writing of these two characters. However, the nasty competitive nature between the two female characters was slightly annoying, because it’s horrible to watch women judge and doubt each other through manipulation and fear. There weren’t any moments of true friendship between the two women, it was a constant competition fought through striking glances and whispered conversations. Both actresses did a good job, but because of the incredibly colorless speaking patterns, there were certainly moments that I fought to stay invested. Also, the idea that women are always one step ahead of the man, so you can never “get away with anything” because your omnipotent dictator of a wife is always watching you.
It really was amazing to watch a film come to life in front of my eyes. Although it raised the question: if you’re going to go so far to make live theatre seem like film, why not just film it and make a movie? For me I really respected the artistry of the designers in this production, proving and reminding audiences the incredible magic that can be created on the stage. Although I am not the biggest fan of film acting on stage, it was really educational as an actor to watch the technique in practice. There was a snow storm on stage which was really incredible. A projection screen dropped in front of the actors on which the snow was showed. With the use of fans, lighting, and sound effects it was awesome to see these actors “struggle” through the snow. It was especially educational for someone like me, who is a very big, wide, and loud actor.