King-Lear---National-Theatre_191213202638122

What makes these hard hearts? Finding warmth in King Lear

King Lear – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 28 May 2014

King Lear, in its monumental scale and overwhelming desolation, is a play that can defeat its audience. It continues to stand alone as the greatest of tragedies due to Shakespeare’s seamless transition from initial personal tragedy to something that contemplates human suffering at a universal level. It may be commonplace to reference the existential nature of the latter stages of King Lear but it is only within the last hundred years that the world has caught up with what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote of Gloucester and Tom atop the cliff that never was or gave voice to the depths of Lear’s madness.

That Shakespeare was writing a play set in the years before England had become England, taking his sources from the Middle Ages and developing interior thoughts that would only be given a name four hundred years later gives an idea of Simon Russell Beale as King Learthe totality of the play and its all-encompassing nature. Indeed our understanding of the importance of the play appears to be only increasing over time; as Jonathan Bate notes, King Lear it has been performed more times in the previous fifty years than in the preceding three hundred and fifty.

Famously Samuel Johnson could not bring himself to re-read the play until forced into doing so by his role as an editor and even to audiences inured to a global world of senseless cruelty and terrible injustice, Shakespeare decision to move away from the original chronicles and deny his characters and his audience one final redemptive moment is both shocking and hard to bear.

It is as if Shakespeare determined to summon up all the miseries of the world and present them in the most elegantly poetical language so that those listening could not close their ears. To make matters worse this is not the tragedy of Euripides or Sophocles; events in Lear’s England do not hinge on the fickle nature of the gods, rather they are summoned into being by a mankind fully in control of their own destiny.

Shakespeare repeatedly shows that in a world without divine intervention suffering falls, without mercy, upon the just and the unjust alike. As we see Lear crumble and Gloucester blinded Shakespeare refuses to relent and even uses Edgar, in the persona of Mad Tom, for a piece of audacious foreshadowing of the horrors to come. By telling the audience that ‘…the worst is not / so long as we can say ‘this is the worst’’ [IV.i] we can hardly claimed to not have been warned.

Is it any wonder that for almost 150 years an alternative version in which the play ends with Cordelia marrying Edgar was the preferred version? What audience could countenance such grotesque horror without the possibility of redemption?

There is so much contained within the play that the role of the director is absolutely central to any production of King Lear. If the director has in mind an actor then it is likely he has already determined how his Lear should be. Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale have a long and fertile history, and a production of this scale must have been on the cards for some time.

One may argue that, at 53, Simon Russell Beale is too young to play Lear and one consequence is that makes the decision to pass his kingdom to the next generation seem even more short-sighted than usual. However the reverse of this is that there is always the tantalising prospect that he may one day return to the role with the wisdom of two further decades behind him.

Mendes introduces us to Lear’s England with a striking opening image; the Olivier space dominated by what appears to be a huge solar eclipse. Other reviews have mentioned its similarity to the eye of Sauron in the Lord of Rings films and it is unlikely that Mendes, no stranger to cinema, missed this clear reference point. Yet the recognition of such a link may be no bad thing as it acts as a subtle primer for the obsession with eyes and sight that exists in King Lear and affixes the notion into the audience; we are to enter a world where even the sun can become blind, so what hope for mere humans.

The image, reminiscent of a giant 0, can be seen to reflect Shakespeare’s repeated reference to ‘nothing’ within the text. In the opening scene Cordelia’s nothing, repeated by Lear as ‘nothing will come of nothing, speak again’ [I.i] begins this trend and we will later have Gloucester’s ‘This great world / Shall so wear out to naught’ [IV.vi].  Lear himself will find himself with nothing after having everything and Gloucester loss of sight is another form of encountering nothingness. King Lear is a play where people suffer the worst privations and are gradually reduced until almost nothing remains; Gloucester is stripped of his sight, Lear his mind, Edgar his status and the Fool and Cordelia, the two characters who perhaps exude the greatest moral worth, are stripped of their lives.

<<Continue to full review>>

Advertisements

You don’t have to be mad to extemporise here but it helps

Hamlet – Young Vic, Running until 21 January 2012

Ian Rickson’s production of Hamlet at the Young Vic begins with an elaborate entrance through the backstage area, which has been transformed into a passage through a mental hospital. As you wind through narrow corridors, you catch glimpses of action through windows and the pervading sense from the TV screens and telephones on display that we are entering the 1970s.

To be honest all this effort feels a little laboured although it does help to immediately ground the play in its overarching theme: is Hamlet mad?  It is a question that has been raked over many times, be it in productions, literary criticism or psychological analysis. However through Ian Rickson’s radical interpretative staging, it is a question that delivers a revelatory redefinition of how the play can be understood.

The play begins with a striking image; Michael Sheen’s Hamlet appears out of nowhere in long shot, trapped in a solitary light shining upstage. Rickson’s exquisite framing is a feature that runs throughout the play but this first image, with a clear allusion to Carol Reed’s The Third Man is particularly notable. It is a potent reference point, immediately conjuring up thoughts of Vienna; the spiritual home of Freud and the psychology movement. The Third Man itself is indebted to German expressionists of early cinema, such as  Fritz Lang and FW Murnau, who were fascinated by madness and its effect on the human condition.

References abound in this play; the 1970’s institutional setting brings to mind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, compared to the recent Hamlets of David Tennant and John Simm, Sheen has an alpha-male muscularity that is redolent of Jack Nicholson without, thankfully, adopting any more of Nicholson’s mannerisms.

The other crucial reference point is the work of RD Laing. In a play that has at its heart the discussion and understanding of madness, Laing’s work has a relevance that underpins the perspective that Rickson takes to the play. At the centre of Laing’s theories is the idea that psychosis is not a biological or psychic response but something that can develop out of socio-cultural situations. This has a direct relevance to the understanding of Hamlet. Hamlet is not ‘mad’ per se but he may have become mad due to the conditions that he has found himself within and the drama of the play may be an attempt to break him of that psychosis.

This reading is reinforced through Laing’s idea that ‘going crazy’ can be the sane response to an insane situation. In this, as in so many other cases, we can infer that Shakespeare touched on the principle a few hundred years before the development of psychology as a science. This may be a stretch but it does appear to reflect Hamlet’s understanding of himself; he wishes to assert his own identity, ‘to thine own self be true’, through his understanding and response to his father’s death. However Hamlet’s ideas conflicts with the response demanded by his ‘uncle-father’ Claudius; Laing would argue that Hamlet is stuck between the persona he has created, the avenger of his father, and the one demanded by parental authority and it is in this bind that the context for Hamlet’s ‘madness’ should be understood.

Click here to read full review