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.

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Furious speculation and petulant snubs

The Evening Standards are almost upon us, so it is time to cast eyes over the shortlist. Harrumph over those missing from the list and make pointlessly futile predictions over who might be coming out on top. As usual we see the usual suspects vying for position.

This year the National leads the way with nine nominations, squeezing out the Royal Court with eight. Most disappointed must be the Donmar with just two nominations and a complete shut-out in both Best Actress and Best Actor catagories despite a number of barnstorming performances from Derek Jacobi, Jude Law and Ruth Wilson.

As usual the commercial sector is poorly represented and even in the musicals category they are squeezed by a National and a RSC production in London Road and Matilda respectively. However it is possible to see the faintest glimmer around the edges as Theatre Royal Haymarket managed to sneak a nomination for Sheridan Smith in Flare Path and a number of other nominations that never quite made it off the longlist. While it is far too early to say, it could be the start of a private theatre that plans to lead with serious, if understandably traditional and crowd-pleasing, drama.

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Best Actor

Bertie Carvel Matilda RSC Stratford and Cambridge Theatre
Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein National’s Olivier
Charles Edwards Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare’s Globe
Jonny Lee Miller Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Well the most interesting thing about this year’s Best Actor category is the double-header of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller being nominated for Frankenstein. It would have been cruel to have nominated one without the other but the question is whether they will pull votes away from each other and allow a sneaky victory for either Bertie Carvel or Charles Edwards to slip through in the ensuing mayhem. Either way looking at the shortlist it feels that it may have been a slightly weak year for male leads – with certainly no standout performance to stand alongside Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet of last year and the England-sized shadow of Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.

There are some notable omissions from the shortlist and James Corden in particular should perhaps feel most put-out by the lack of inclusion. He received universally rave reviews for One Man, Two Guvnors and the play had a host of 5* reviews and earned a nomination in its own right for Best Play. No space either for the Hollywood A-list of Spacey, Fiennes and Law; with Law perhaps producing the most transformative performance of them all in Anna Christie and re-establishing his right to be called a credible actor.

Will Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein (successfully holding off the split vote)

Should Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

James Corden – One Man, Two Guvnors / Jude Law – Anna Christie

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Natasha Richardson award for Best Actress

Sheridan Smith Flare Path Theatre Royal Haymarket
Samantha Spiro Chicken Soup With Barley Royal Court
Kristin Scott Thomas Betrayal Comedy Theatre

The formidable Kristin Scott Thomas looms large over the Best Actress category; bringing a stately grandeur and the imperious air of a known winner to proceedings. A handsome, well-acted Pinter play has awards written all over it but it hasn’t caught the eye in any of the other catagories so it is possible that it doesn’t quite have the legs to deliver the prize to Kristin.

It is entirely possible that the mass of goodwill that Sheridan Smith generated in Legally Blonde may transfer over to her first major lead in a straight play. And we are in a Rattigan centenary year as well. So as the stars seem to align for one double S, it appears the other, Samantha Spiro may be leaving empty handed despite an immensely powerful performance in Chicken Soup with Barley.

In a double blow for Anna Christie and the Donmar, Ruth Wilson joined Jude Law in failing to make it off the shortlist. Looking at the plays, we have a Rattigan, a Wesker, a Pinter and no room for any Americans. Perhaps as uncertainty swirls all around there has been a reward for those choosing Britain’s great 20th century playwrights to reflect on the modern psychology of the nation.

Will Win

Sheridan Smith – Flare Path

Should Win

Samantha Spiro – Chicken Soup with Barley

Should Have Been Nominated

Ruth Wilson – Anna Christie

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Best Play

The Heretic Richard Bean Royal Court
One Man, Two Guvnors Richard Bean National’s Lyttelton
Becky Shaw Gina Gionfriddo Almedia
Tribes Nina Raine Royal Court

Following my previous point about American plays, I suspect that we can count Becky Shaw out of the running. Undoubtably a strong play, I feel its previous history running off-Broadway may count against it in the final reckoning. Richard Bean can count himself unlucky to be nominated twice for Best Play but failed to even make it to the shortlist for Best Director. If people vote for the man rather than the play, we may see both The Heretic and One Many, Two Guvnors miss out on a split vote.

If this logic means Tribe picks up the award then justice may well have been done, as it would be just reward for a young writer’s elegant handling of the contentious topic of disability. Whilst not containing the full liberating freedom of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, it manages to free the topic from its normal parameters in order to confront the traditional Royal Court audience with a painful dose of reality. After last year’s win for the hugely successful Clydebourne Park, it appears the Royal Court may have found a rich vein of form in forcing its liberal supporters to reassess their underlying beliefs and prejudices.

Will Win

One Man, Two Guvnors – Richard Bean

Should Win

Tribes – Nina  Raine

Should Have Been Nominated

Wittenberg – David Davalos

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Ned Sherrin Award For Best Musical

Betty Blue Eyes
London Road
Matilda the musical

Not having seen any of these makes it difficult to comment. However it is hard to see past Matilda the musical sweeping all before it. Rapturous reviews at Stratford for the acting and singing, alongside Tim Minchin’s inspired lyricism; possibly one of the few individuals who would be able to capture Roald Dahl’s imagination. London Road is undoubtably a powerful piece of work but was it so good that you can convince voters to go for such a dour work in traditionally sunny category? Betty Blue Eyes? Reasonably reviews but will  people vote for something that is closing early? I think not.

Will Win

Matilda the musical

Should Win

Matilda the musical

Should Have Been Nominated

Nothing really stands out in what feels like a particularly weak year for musicals despite what the Evening Standard may say on the matter.

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Best Director

Rob Ashford Anna Christie Donmar
Dominic Cooke Chicken Soup with Barley Royal Court
Edward Hall Richard III & The Comedy of Errors Propeller At Hampstead
Mike Leigh Grief National’s Cotteslow

As much as I would love to see Edward Hall pick up a reward for the virtuoso vision that drives Propeller and their all-male Shakespeare productions, it feels like a very big ask for a company that doesn’t have the catchy celebrity names and longstanding reputations of the Donmar and the Royal Court. I think Mike Leigh can be ruled out as well, as loved as he may be this does not feel like a Mike Leigh year and Grief passed me by with little more than a whisper.

Coming down to Rob Ashford and Dominic Cooke we have two plays that highlight the differences in writing on either side of the Atlantic. O’Neill vs Wesker is a mouth-watering proposition. It is shaped up to be an extremely close run race that I supect will be decided by the fact that we appear to be in a period of re-evaluating Wesker,  Chicken Soup… at the Donmar and the The Kitchen at the Nationa. This extra name recognition and a seeming favouring of British playwrights should be enough to swing the judges towards Dominic Cooke.

A lot of big names have missed out. There is no space for Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle for their interepretations of Richard III and Frankenstein. It’s a shame to see Declan Donnellan has not made the cut for The Tempest, although Russian language plays are always going to be a tough sell.

Will Win

Dominic Cooke – Chicken South with Barley

Should Win

Edward Hall – Richard III & The Comedy of Errors

Should Have Been Nominated

Declan Donnellan – The Tempest

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Best Design

Bunny Christie Men Should Weep National’s Lyttelton
Lizzie Clachan Wastwater Royal Court
Adam Cork Sound designer of Anna Christie and King Lear Donmar
Mark Tildesley Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Not much to say on this other than if Mark Tildesley doesn’t win for Frankenstein then I shall eat my hat. The Olivier is a famously difficult to space to work with and while Danny Boyle’s production may have had its problems, the design was not one of them. Visually stunning and a replica steam train on stage; whatever beats it must be out of this world.

Will Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

Jon Bausor –  Lord of the Flies

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Charles Wintour Award For Most Promising Playwright

E.V. Crowe Kin Royal Court
Vivienne Franzmann Mogadishu Lyric Hammersmith
Penelope Skinner The Village Bike Royal Court

Not having seen any of these its hard to comment. However based purely on word of mouth I suspect that Vivienne Franzmann is out in front for Mogadishu. A deserving win could be on the cards for the Lyric Hammersmith that has championed new writing but has often been overlooked in favour of the reputation of the Royal Court.

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Milton Shulman Award For Outstanding Newcomer

Phoebe Fox For her performances In As You Like It (Rose, Kingston) and The Acid Test (Royal Court) and There Is A War (National’s Paintframe)
Malachi Kirby For his performance In Mogadishu (Lyric Hammersmith)
Kyle Soller For his performances In The Glass Menagerie (Young Vic), Government Inspector (Young Vic) and The Faith Machine (Royal Court)
David Wilson Barnes For his performance In Becky Shaw (Almeida)

In one of the more interesting developments across the nominations, we saw husband, Kyle Soller, up against his wife, Phoebe Fox, in the battle for Outstanding Newcomer. Out of the two my money is on Kyle Soller, if in part for an outstanding performance as Khlestakov in the Young Vic’s version of The Government Inspector and an extremely strong follow-up in The Glass Menagarie.

I feel Malachi Kirby will struggle to match this with just Mogasdishu behind him and there will be no justice in the world  if David Wilson Barnes walks off with the award – as any quick glance at his C.V suggests ‘newcomer’ maybe laying it on a bit thick.

Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome your host for the evening…Kevin Spacey

Richard III – The Old Vic, booking until 11 September 2011 and then on international tour

After three years Kevin Spacey’s slightly underwhelming time at the helm of the transatlantic Bridge Project is coming to an end. In finding a play worthy of closing the season and rounding things off with almighty bang, it is hard to image too much time was spent time arguing whether Richard III fitted the bill. With Sam Mendes returning to theatre and reviving the collaborative relationship that turned American Beauty from interesting mid-budget indie-pic into a major Hollywood hit, a bona-fide English classic (a treat in what otherwise has been a rather barren diet of macho-slices of Americana from the Old Vic) that is an audience favourite and most importantly a lead role that appears tailor-made for a man who has made unsettlingly charming characters his stock in trade.

It is evident from the outset that Mendes is fully aware of where interest in this production lies. With no disrespect to the rest of the cast, this is as much the Kevin Spacey spectacular as it is Richard III. It is, in short, what the audience, who are paying considerable amounts to be there, are hoping for: towering, powerhouse, barnstorming, tour de force. Critics have been reaching for the thesaurus for ever more obscure ways of acclaiming the performance, even if the production itself does not always reach such high standards.

This is very much acting with a capital ‘A’. More importantly it is acting that is only rarely seen on the English stage nowadays. There is more in common with the greats of the past than the more modern approach, which has seen overt performing dialled down in favour of a more studied psychological approach. Compared with the recent Hamlets of Kinnear, Tennant, which looked to develop particular strains of the character, Spacey’s performance risks looking brash and overbearing.

However, whilst it is clear that Spacey is having tremendous fun in the role, this is a world away from the bombastic delivery of an old ham; he is far too intelligent an actor for that. A more accurate depiction would be to describe it as a masterclass of camp; in its most traditional sense of ‘ostentatious’ and ‘exaggerated’. This is the knowing performance of a man who understands both the play and how to hold the audience in the palm of his hand. The brief flicker of the eyes out to the audience when telling Lady Anne ‘My tongue could never learn sweet smoothing words’ was eerily reminiscient of Frank telling Brad ‘It wasn’t all bad was it? Not even half-bad in fact…’ in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Continue reading here

Spotting a summer celebrity – 2011

 Five to watch

It’s that time of year again when those celebrities, or those unfortunate to have missed out on the chance to spend the next four months sitting in hotel lobbies desperately promoting a $200 million turkey to  hacks still willing to buy into the illusion that Pirates of the Caribbean represents a significant addition to cinema’s canon, remember that theatre represents their true calling along’.  We can forget for the moment that most will have disappeared back State-side, ready to add a new-found gravitas to an already embarrassingly padded C.V, just in time for the festival circuit and instead enjoy gawping at people we normally see in while chowing down on a bucket of popcorn the size of a small child.

5) Rupert Everett & Diana Rigg

Pygmalion – Garrick  Theatre, from the  25 May 2011

First off, sadly Diana Rigg is not due to play Eliza Doolittle, although that would be an officially awesome reworking of George Bernard’s Shaw classic. Instead she is down to play Mrs Higgins, while Rupert Everett reprises the role of Henry Higgins that he first played as part of the Chichester Festival.

GBS is having a slightly revival of late, with recent major productions of St Joan and Mrs Warren’s Profession gracing Londdon, after a long period of having been pushed into the shadows. I am sure the imperious Diana Rigg will be splendid but Everett is the more interesting choice; he, after all, is a man who never quite made it onto the Hollywood A-list (for reasons that may or may not have to do with him being openly gay) who will be playing a character who works to fundamentally change Eliza so that she is more socially acceptable. One wonders what Freud would have to say about that?

Celebrity enjoyment factor: C

4) Jude Law

Anna Christie – Donmar Warehouse, 04 August – 08 October 2011

Jude Law loses out in the battle of the Hamlets (see 2. below) but this is partly down to the fact that I don’t really know as much as I should about Eugene O’Neill and his plays. Wikipedia tells me that this one the Pulitzer Prize back in 1922 so I am guess it is going to be pretty good and Long Day’s Journey into the Night is generally regarded as an American classic.

The Donmar rarely puts on poor productions and Jude Law, even before Hamlet, is no mug on stage. Just as he was starting out in Hollywood (way, way before the Jude Law overload of 2004, which saw him opening 6 films in one year and the public getting more and more sick of the sight of him – the nadir probably being the execrable remake of Alfie) he left an indelible impression in the Young Vic’s production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. If this production is half as good as that then, following a reasonably strong Hamlet, we may be seeing the moulding of Law as a strong presence on the British stage.

Celebrity enjoyment factor: B-

3) Ralph Fiennes

The Tempest – Theatre Royal  Haymarket, 27 August – 29 October 2011 

Coming as part of Trevor Nunn’s impressive first season as artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket (we have already seen a well reviewed, and star-heavy, Rattigan revival in Flare Path and we can look forward to Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead in early summer), The Tempest has drawn one of the few actors who seems at ease on stage as he is on camera. Ralph Fiennes, who has previously excelled as Julius Caesar and has been busy with his directoral debut, a modern-day version of Coriolanus, so is clearly no stranger to Shakepeare (even if many of his younger fans may recognise him more clearly as Voldemort in Harry Potter).

The only question-mark is his age. Not yet 50, Fiennes would seem to be a very young Prospero (even if Miranda is only supposed to 16); traditionally a part that actors take as they approach the end of their careers. The question is whether Fiennes has the gravitas of a man who was cast adrift when his daughter was just a baby. In lesser hands it may be more of a concern but looking at some of his career highlights to date – Quiz Show, Schindler’s List, The English Patient, The Reader – it is clear this is a man who understands and enjoys complex roles, and this should be an exciting proposition.

Celebrity enjoyment factor: B

2) David Tennant & Catherine Tate

Much Ado About Nothing – Wyndhams  Theatre, from May 16 2011

Admittedly this isn’t exactly Hollywood but this is about as close as we get in the UK. The Doctor and one of the most left-field choices of companion turning it around and going head to head in one of Shakespeare’s most ferocious and ferociously funny comedies. Tennant showed in Hamlet that he has a quick-silver tongue and Tate has demonstrated a motor-mouth on numerous occasions; even without the pre-history of Doctor Who behind them, this would be a Benedict and Beatrice worthy of note. 

My only gripe is the outrageously expensive ticket prices, god only knows whether they plan to somehow incorporate time travel into the show but with Stalls seats running at £61 and the Circle for £51 there had better be something splendid to justify the price. While it would be naive to expect reasonably priced tickets in the West End, it is profoundly depressing when a show which will clearly appeal to children and those who don’t always go to the theatre will cost a family of four over £200 for seats that are not right up in the gods (spending over 2 hours with that little leg room is enough to put people off Shakespeare for life). If people complain about the sustainability of theatre then productions like this, which seem to exclude new audiences through price alone, should take a large part of the blame.

Celebrity enjoyment factor: A-

1) Kevin Spacey

Richard III – Old Vic Theatre, from 18 June 2011 before an international tour

If you, like me, has been more than a little underwhelmed by Kevin Spacey’s period as artistic director for the Old Vic then hopefully here is the big project you have been waiting for.  It seems that there have been too many small scale American plays that haven’t resonated with audiences this side of the Atlantic and when Spacey has been on stage we have seen nothing of the tour de force performance that brought him international acclaim in The Iceman Cometh.

Well if anything calls for a tour de force then it must be Richard III. One of the great ‘acting’ roles, Richard III must leave actors salivating. A great plot of intrigue and murder, one of the first anti-heroes; a king who is both crippled in mind and body. From the off… ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ this is a play crammed full of memorable lines and set-pieces. It can only be hoped that Spacey, under the direction of the reliable Mendes, who clearly knows how to work with film actors, really lets himself go and retakes the stage by storm.

Celebrity enjoyment factor: A