Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Michael Attenborough
Review: Steve Barfield
The Public Reviews Rating:
This is a play which has become almost synonymous with the creative pinnacle of great classical actors who reach the age to play the title role and this production is no exception: Jonathan Pryce makes the role his own and it is a bravura display of acting by one of Britain’s great actors. Pryce creates both one of the more disturbing Lears seen onstage and also one whose descent into the underworld of madness is the most piteous and harrowing, while his redemption through suffering achieves a distinct luminosity amidst the play’s bleak darkness.
There is something fierce and domestic about this production in its orientation rather than reaching for the cosmological or ethically tragic. While it is perfectly solid in terms of Michael Attenborough’s direction and overall concept, there is nothing particularly innovative. Tom Scott’s design makes good use of the brick walls of the theatre space and helps to create a sense of the pagan world of the play, that is fostered by the use of earthy coloured costumes. It reminded me a little of Peter Brook’s bleak film of the play from 1971 with Paul Scofield in the title role. Earth is important to the production and the second half of the production shows perhaps too obviously the green shoots of new growth, suggesting the redemptive fertility elements of paganism; though this seemed at odds with the final conclusion, which was as un-redemptive as in most productions of the play (this was why Nahum Tate rewrote the play in 1681 to create a happy ending).
The opening of the play was done particularly well as Pryce’s Lear is an intimidating, mercurial and more than slightly crazy presence, rather than any doddering fool. You get the feeling this is a man whose career as king has been imperious, tyrannical and by no means benevolent. In demanding that his daughters articulate their love he unpleasantly kisses Zoe Waite’s Goneril on the mouth and though nothing much else is done with this in the play, you get the feeling that perhaps this is more than just Oedipal dynamics and is bordering on domestic sexual abuse. When Phoebe Fox’s unusually plucky and spirited Cordelia refuses to do what he asks and engage in the flattery her sisters felt necessary, the venomous rage Pryce’s Lear flies into is palpable and something of a shock to the audience.
It was a good opening and Fox’s excellent Cordelia surprises by showing she is no timorous angel, but is rather rebelliously prepared to stand up to her father and already conscious of her sister’s real natures. One thing the production did achieve was a certain amount of sympathy with the daughters as Pryce’s Lear was so unpleasant a bully; much the same could be said of Clive Wood’s Gloucester who humiliates his bastard son Edmund very publically. Kieran Bew’s Edmund seemed to be hewn from rough-stuff, with a distinctive ‘uncultured’ accent to separate him from he court and he created an impressive sense of someone who really felt he deserved what he could win by foul means, borne of his own ill-treatment. In certain ways he perhaps represented a slightly different social class from the others in the play.
The strength of the opening of the play did make it slightly harder to see why Zoe Waite’s Goneril and Jenny Jules’ Regan should so quickly turn into such monsters, but Pryce did so much to emphasise the ‘monstrosity’ of women as central to the problematic gender politics of the play. Lear’s is a world in which women can only be either monsters or angels with very little in between and this was one aspect that was prominent in the production. They must either submit to patriarchy or else any independence is seen as the beginning of evil. So, why not go the whole hog? There was perhaps a sense in which their own tragedies, their nihilism and their competitive sexual attraction towards Edmund, as well as their disgust at Cordelia’s sense of honour lay in family dynamics. They had nothing but hatred for their father because of the kind of King and ruler he was (more then like Edward Bond’s famous Lear).
There was a fine Geordie Fool from Trevor Fox who was both tougher to Lear than many Fools and stayed on stage as a brooding, disconcerting, non-speaking long after his final line. Perhaps even the licensed Fool was silenced by the catastrophe that is Lear’s descent into madness. Pryce’s Lear descends into madness as if into the underworld and his insanity had the ring of truth to it in quite a modern way, though the storm scene did little to show the elements of the storm this was a very private kind of madness. His final redemption through suffering was also a private one, as he learnt that it was after all he who had destroyed not just the kingdom, but his family and Cordelia in particular.
With an impressive and brutal battle scene between an enraged Edgar and desperate Edmund, the overall impression was one of a world of brutal contingency. Lear’s return to sanity when he enters after Cordelia’s death was as heart-rending, as piteous and as much a testament to the bleak inhumanity of the world as possible for a King, who perhaps should not forgive himself. Pryce’s rendition of Lear’s final death seemed more like release for a man who didn’t really want or expect anyone to forgive him.