In the episode ‘George’s Last Ride’ from the seminal television drama Boys from the Blackstuff, Chrissy (Michael Angelis) pushes George (Peter Kerrigan) in his wheelchair through the derelict landscape of the industrial dock area of Liverpool. The predominance of greys in the scene create a sense of despair and pessimism. As Chrissy helps George stand for the last time, George declares, “I can’t believe that there is no hope. I can’t”. In watching David Farr’s King Lear, I was reminded of George, a man driven to the absolute edge of despair, and a society which has crumbled around him.
As the audience enter the dark auditorium at the Courtyard Theatre for the Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear, they hear the clanging and banging in the background of machinery at work. The set has an industrial feel as if it had been situated inside an old deserted factory. High up are broken windows with the sun streaking through the dirt engrained on the glass. There’s a bell and a pulley prominently placed. Edgar (Charles Aitkin) sits on the stage staring outwards in stunned horror.
Like his design for last season’s The Winter’s Tale, Jon Bauber’s set for this production is another set which disintegrates around us, but unlike the The Winter’s Tale set, it is fragmented and shattered to start with. Throughout the production, the lights fizz and crackle as if an insect has flown into them. The sound is sometimes like that moment when the strip lighting flickers as it struggles to power on. Edmund (Tunjim Kasim) seems able to control the lights, as did Feste in Greg Doran’s production of Twelfth Night, but this is not for humorous effect, it is rather sinister. In the storm scene, Lear stands centre stage water streams down over (and under) him and as the winds blow the set crashes around him.
David Farr’s production merges different periods in time. Lear and Kent are presented as medieval knights, and in contrast the Gloucester family are in Edwardian dress. I wasn’t clear why this was, but it made me think about possible reasons for this creative decision. Is it to suggest that King Lear deals with a sweep of British history? Are we being asked to comment on the relationship between the two periods depicted through costume? Possibly the set has been designed to make us think about the decline of the industrial revolution and that we are hurtling towards the first world war. I wondered if we were meant to think that the Gloucester family are the intellects and Lear is the warrior. I felt these shifts in time were very in keeping to the RSC current approach in setting productions in no particular time or place such as the current RSC’s As You Like It that moves through time ending up in the contemporary dress. I really like the experiments with time and setting, because it moves beyond those attempts to make comparisons between Shakespeare’s plays and specific historical moments without being clumsy about the idea of the plays being universal.
What I found interesting about this production was that there were set pieces that looked like images captured in paintings, such as the way the court organised themselves for Lear’s entrance at the beginning of the play. There was a series of repeated images as well. One of them is the image of the three sisters on stage. In the first scene, Goneril and Regan kneel and Cordelia is still stood on her soap box as if she has been placed on a pedestal and bathed in light. Towards the end of the play the three sisters find themselves on stage at the same time reminding me of the moment Cordelia responds to Lear with her ‘nothing’.
Hicks’ plays Lear with a sense of humour in parts. In the first scene he wrong foots the court who are all lined up expecting him to enter centre stage, and he enters from the vomitorium cackling with glee. At moments he mimics age, which has some irony as this is what he is to become so soon. It must be be exhausting, playing all Lear’s moods. Hicks is able to play the transition from warrior to fragile old man brilliantly. His Lear is petulant and boisterous. He abuses his power, and it is as if as King he thinks he can do anything he likes. As I was watching Greg Hicks as Lear, I couldn’t help making connections between his portrayal of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and his King Lear. In this production Kelly Hunter’s Goneril stares with stunned shock at Lear as if she can’t believe how far he will go. It was the kind of reaction that Hermione has when watching Leontes rage in his jealousy. Both plays have worlds which are turned upside down and daughters are banished into wilderness. I like the ways Hicks uses the physical body to reflect his emotional strain. As Hicks transforms into a crumpled old man, I was reminded of the image int he second half of The Winter’s Tale, when the scene returns to Sicilia and Leontes is sat in the dark at the back of the stage.
There are some stunning performances in this production. Katy Stephens and Kelly Hunter as Regan and Goneril were both thoughtful and powerful portrayals of the two sisters. Darrell D’Silva’s Kent was spectacular. He is an energetic Kent fighting for his friend and was a lovely contrast to Gloucester. The performance which has stuck in my mind is Kathryn Hunter’s Fool is a curious piece of work. She plays the role as a vulnerable child, and she plays the role as androgynous. This boy/woman Fool just can’t stop himself from speaking, as if lacking any control over his actions. The Fool pulls Lear’s hand from the fire, but just can’t seem to bring himself to take Lear away as if the obvious isn’t possible for him. I thought Kathryn Hunter’s expressions were wonderful and beguiling. It is an enormously poignant moment when the Fool hesitates and does not follow Lear. I felt that was a significant moment in this production in that Lear was truly alone without any followers at all.
Yes, this production is a little eclectic, but I found a lot in it to think about.
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