Performance #20: King Lear and his Merry Men

This Wednesday my father and I attended a performance of King Lear at the Barbican theatre. The Barbican is so unfortunately placed in London, but it is a wonderful space once you get inside the theatre. King Lear has been on my mind a lot this past year or so, for a few reasons. Over the summer I read a novel called A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. It is a somewhat modern re-telling of King Lear set in the Midwest. Smiley tells the story from the “evil” sister’s point of view, shedding light on well kept secrets that prompt their deep set resentment towards their patriarch.  It is not uncommon for retellings of Shakespeare to be a swing and a miss, but Smiley’s interpretation was really wonderfully crafted. All thanks and praise to professors who give you excellent reading suggestions! Because of that novel I will never view Lear in the same way, and I will always pay more attention to the sisters. Because it was an RSC production, there were many of the same actors from the production of Cymbeline that I saw in October. Most of the repeat actors did much better in their roles in Lear than they did in Cymbeline, although it felt more like a growth rather than a complete surprise in their talent. I also read Antony Sher’s book The Year of the King this summer, which is a journal-turned-book about his journey before and through the production of King Richard the III that he was in. He’s written other books similar to this, and I highly recommend them for aspiring actors. So not only was I getting to see a second performance from a group of very good actors, but I was also getting a chance to watch Sir Antony Sher perform, wow.

The stage reminded me of the Swan theatreSONY DSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (pictured below) in Stratford-upon-Avon because the upstage wall is so far pushed back into the theatre. I really like this depth on stage, because I always feel like the play is hiding things from me, things that only the characters know about because they are in the world of the play. However, for the folks in the nose bleed seats this staging can be unfortunate. Every space has its problems that directors have to work around. The walls were mainly brick until the scenes near the end (starting with Gloucester thinking he is about to dive off the Cliffs of Dover). The wall lifted to a clinically white backdrop that made the space seem so distant and uncomfortable, which was great. It was refreshing to see an RSC production where the set didn’t overtake the actors. There was a plexi-glass box/ carriage that amazingly doubled as the throne for Lear, it placed Lear several feet above the others, easily establishing his grand status and attitude. There was also a box that I lovingly call the Death Box, because it was only used for the torture of Gloucester and the death of Cornwall, Reagan’s husband. Strangely enough, I recognized this box from the production of The Tempest that I saw back in 2012! The costumes were so gorgeous. In the first scene Reagan, Goneril, and Cordelia entered in glistening dresses. I especially loved Goneril’s because she wore a burgundy dress with golden specks dappling the shoulders and top of the back. The whole show was filled with a beautiful golden ambience, which set up the Caravaggio lighting early on in the play.

There was a gorgeous staging moment towards the end of the play when King Lear and Cordelia have died. A golden light was cast diagonally across their bodies, and I immediately thought of the painting style of the artist Caravaggio. Caravaggio is famous for his brutally and beautifully detailed depictions of scenes from Christ’s life. In many of his paintings there is diagonal light source that shows off the beautiful ripples in the folds of the clothing. Sometimes I’m darn proud of myself, because later we looked in the program and there was an article about Caravaggio and Shakespeare! I may have smugly patted myself on the back for that, but I’m not admitting anything. This golden light was used throughout the play, which always made the stage seem hazy and like a gilded medieval painting. In this article they were comparing Caravaggio’s gruesome paintings to the bleak scenes throughout Lear, we don’t want to watch but we can’t take our eyes away. Both artists have created a beautifully depicted world of injustice and broken persons who seek perfection through revenge or resentment.

A very interesting point brought up in the program was the epidemic of homeless people in Elizabethan England. After several years of brutal treatment of these persons, Thomas Cromwell led a social welfare movement to help the homeless. The Aristocracy was urged to give money to those on the street who were unfit for work and forced to bed. We see the same relationship between Lear and Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom the beggar. Lear calls Tom a philosopher, a friend, and urges him to join him in his house. This is mainly due to Lear’s madness, but discounting his madness it is still odd that a king is extremely kind to this mad stranger. I know it’s not a monumental point to write about, but I thought it was really interesting.

Another great point brought up by this program (glad it was worth the 4£) were the themes of blindness and light.  I could write a whole essay just discussing these themes throughout the show, but I’ll try and keep it to a minimum. There are several characters that are seeking light, but are too blind to see the right path. There is even a scene of a blind man (Gloucester) leading the mad King Lear, who has become blind with madness. Lear remains blind to many things in this play, or is too stubborn to see the light, aka recognising the errors of his ways. With the theme of blindness, I am reminded of the political history of this play. King Lear was written and performed at the same time that King James the  I is seeking unity for England, Ireland, and Scotland, and was generally failing. Shakespeare is gently nudging thoughts and a reflection of the king’s actions in this play. I was also reminded of the themes of blindness and light throughout Jesus’s parables in the New Testament of the bible. “He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39) I think these themes are more relevant for character development and research for the actors, but it brings an fascinating light (pun intended, obviously) to the many relationships in this show.

The last time I saw King Lear was four hours of painful confusion, and if you don’t believe me just read Performance #15 &16. Even the performance of Cymbeline (which many of these actors were in) had moments of intense confusion. The biggest award for Most Improved goes to Edmund and Edgar, the sons of Gloucester. Edmund made some really great dark comedic choices that played nicely in his several soliloquies. Sometimes he would hold his face with his mouth agape, which I must admit took away from the menacing man I was supposedly watching. I can’t really harp on that, however, because I of all people should know that many facial expressions are made without conscious knowledge. His choices and intentions were clear and really that’s all an audience will ask of you, so for the love of goat cheese just do your text work! ( This is a complaint outside of this cast and to the general public of theatre makers, apologies.) Oliver Johnstone was the dashing Iachimo in Cymbeline, and he was even better as Edgar. His physicality for Poor Tom, the deranged beggar was really nice, and he had some beautiful moments with his father in the second act of the show. Cordelia was a little weak, unfortunately, but I think that’s mainly because I saw her play a very strong character in Cymbeline. I wanted that same strength to be shown through Cordelia, but I do not blame the actress for seeking a different route from her last character. My dad and I both thought that Reagan was the strongest of the sisters, because she carried herself with such an air of resilience and ruthlessness. When I saw this actress as Pisania in Stratford, I quickly spoke to her after the show congratulating her on her performance. Boy, am I glad I spoke to her now, because she did a great job!

A multi-dimensional villain will almost always capture an audience’s attention more than the golden-hearted hero. As an audience member, I enjoy seeing characters struggling with their anger and hatred, and I want to see why they feel this way. There’s a line between terrifying and boring with character’s who are evil for no other reason than to be evil. If well executed, an ambivalent villain scares the living heck out of us because we realise that they feel neither shame nor pleasure from their doings. Although often times we see villains, especially in film, who are evil and one-dimensional and pretty boring. Edmund, Reagan, and Goneril are some really well crafted “villains,” and that’s because they are extremely multi-dimensional. There are sound reasons for their anger, and it’s incredible to watch the gruesome duel of jealousy between the two sisters. Edmund is at his core a child that was never loved, and instead of going to counselling, decides to ruin his family instead.

It feels almost silly to write about the performance of Antony Sher, because unless he hit a bad stroke of luck, it’s probably going to be a great performance. I admit that during some of his speeches his voice would stay at a constant crackling yell, but I really loved his character development through the show. Many people view Lear as more saintly than he really was, because they only remember the last image of Lear, rather than Lear in the first act. Lear is petty, vindictive, and a bit nihilistic. It was awesome watching Lear curse his daughters, which was actually a part I usually forget about. But his intensely directed anger really gave the daughters some cause as to why they seek revenge against him. More than that I loved watching his madness scenes, they were so tender and gentle. I just wanted to snuggle up with papa Lear and watch his delusions play out around me.

Another solid performance and another huge star of the stage! Once again I spend almost three hours finishing one of these responses, which lemme tell you, can be pretty tiring. Not as tiring as a 12 hour work shift in the mines, but my mind currently looks like the black and white screen of a broken television. Even if nobody reads these I know I’ll be glad to have such well documented experiences when I read over these in years to come.




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