I know King Lear has been the hottest ticket in London for some while, but when our excellent ‘theatre agent’ booked the seats for us in March 2010, I’m sure none of us knew what a treat we were in for. At the time we we chose it, I think, because it was Shakespeare, and because of Derek Jacobi. But I can see now why the play is getting such good reviews. I can hardly begin to explain how deeply this production affected me.
When I sat down in the intimate theatre, I was taken aback by the simple stage: shoddily painted blanks of wood made the space look like an old shed. But as the cruel plot advanced, the stage took on a sinister air; it became a blank canvas onto which base human emotions could easily be drawn. And later, blood shone brightly and horrifyingly clearly against the whitewashed walls.
Derek Jacobi was wholly absorbing in the title role; his foolish pride, which in the course of the play turned into old age madness (dementia?) was so convincing it was painful to watch. I’m sure many of us in the audience could relate to an elderly parent’s misguided loyalty causing havoc in family politics, be that they wouldn’t be as dramatic as those in a Shakespearian kingdom. All the same, the fact that I at least could compare the emotions portrayed by the cast of this ancient play to modern life surely reflects not only the masterly writing but also the superb acting.
Whenever I go to see a Shakespeare play, I’m always worried that I won’t be able to follow the plot. The language is said to be so difficult, but I once the dialogue starts, I find it almost easier to follow than some modern accents that I’m not used to (I find Scottish really tricky). I studied Shakespeare only very little at school, but find the phrasing so beautiful, the English so correct, that I almost wish people spoke like this all the time.
There are also those moments when you recognise a title, or a synonym, or a proverb in the play which has been used in modern literature. This time my Eureka moment came when the fool, mocking the madness of King Lear, says under his breath, ‘And I’ll Go to Bed at Noon.’ I hadn’t realised that the title of one of my favourite novels, the Booker short-listed tale by Gerard Woodward, referred to the play. I can see the connection now; in the book the family struggles to hold onto each other in the face of alcoholism, the modern drug, comparable to the lure of power which destroys King Lear’s family.
I musn’t forget to mention the rest of the excellent cast. Ron Cook as the fool was witty and tragic at the same time. Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell both gave brilliant performances as the power hungry sisters, Goneril and Regan, as did Pippa Bennett-Warner as the vulnerable and trustworthy Cordelia.
The only weak performance I saw was that given by Alec Newman as Edmund. He seemed too obviously nasty from the very first scene. As I’ve said, I’m no Shakespeare expert, but I felt his role demanded some slow development. We are aware too soon that he is bitter about his birthright – or the lack of it – and bears a grudge towards his legitimate brother, and the whole world he and his Father inhabits. I would have wanted the actor to have grown more sinister as the play went on, not to be the villain from the very start. But this is but a small complaint in the face of what was a totally awesome performance.
Every time I see a Shakespeare play I promise myself to study him further. This time I must keep to this promise.