King Charles III Poster

‘Go some of you and fetch a looking glass’; writing for kings in the 21st century

King Charles III – Almeida Theatre, until 31 May 2014 (Day Seats & Returns only)

Civilian Theatre was one of many celebrating when Rupert Goold snagged the job of Artistic Director at the Almeida and given the unenviable task of continuing the success of Michael Attenborough’s 11-year tenure. Based on his opening salvo; the intentionally eye-catching American Psycho: The Musical before bringing in his former company with the Headlong-produced 1984, it appears Goold has a canny sense of how to blur the KING CHARLES III by Bartlett,        , Writer - Mike Bartlett, Director -  Rupert Goold, Design - Tom Scutt, Composor - Jocelyn Pook, Lighting - Jon Clark, Almeida Theatre, London, UK, 2014, Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.comboundaries between popular and elitist theatre.

Appropriately enough the issue of succession is at the heart of the first play Goold has personally directed at the venue; Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III. Another well-judged choice, Bartlett’s play cannot fail to appeal to all audiences. Much has been made of the Shakespearian overtones but the true success of the play is that it is a hugely enjoyable piece of, what Bartlett calls, ‘future history’, which also raises questions that Britain as a country will need to confront in time.

Like Jerusalem this is proper state of the nation theatre and it is heartening to see a playwright unapologetically examine ‘big issues’ on such a grand scale. Bartlett demonstrates that verse has its place in modern drama and that audiences needn’t be turned off by the use of heightened language. The use of iambic pentameter isn’t purely to demonstrate Bartlett’s skill as a poet but because he is dealing with characters that are simultaneously entirely real and, to the majority of us, entirely unknowable.

King-Charles-III-Almeida-LondonThe greatest PR trick that royalty has ever pulled off was to create this public image and then to strenuously avoid revealing their true face. Our current Queen has studiously kept to this template and it is notable that it is only when the mask slips that the public begins to question their value. As we enter a new era, the age of Will and Kate and of smartphones and public accessibility, this model is in a state of flux and Bartlett has pitched Charles’ succession as the moment that the new and old world will collide.

The use of verse is a way into this private world. How can prose be placed into the mouths of people who are so recognisable but so unknown? We cannot know how they really speak behind closed doors and so creating a state of unreality through artifice is a way to reach some kind of truth. It also allows Bartlett pre-existing conventions to slip seamlessly between conversation and monologue. We are permitted into an inner-realm, not just the closed world of the monarchy but the private consciousness of its key figures.

The allusions come thick and fast and for those who know Shakespeare there is much fun to be had in spotting the references. However Bartlett ensures that this is not to the detriment of those who haven’t been schooled in all the History plays and a fair portion of the tragedies. The characters he draws are fascinating in their own right and capture the essence of who they are. It is perhaps Prince Harry who is closest to caricature but how could one resist when he is built to be modelled on the classic arc of Hal in Henry IV Part I and II.

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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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A timeless – or should that be conservative – production

Henry V – Noel Coward Theatrebooking until 15 February 2014

So the Michael Grandage season draws to a close with Henry V; one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and one that sees Grandage reunite with Jude Law following their Hamlet in 2009, itself a reminder of Law’s theatrical qualities – something that always feels at risk of being buried among the dead weight of his often mediocre Hollywood movies.

The cinema is a useful starting point for Henry V and possibly one reason why Jude Law was approached for the role, because the play itself is one that feels strangely uncomfortably suited to the stage and its ongoing Jude Law in Henry V, Noel Coward Theatrepopularity is perhaps more due to the rousing film versions of Olivier, Branagh and, more recently, Tom Hiddleston.

The main difficulty of staging Henry V lies in the fact that a large proportion of the plot is set directly in, and around, live battles. Fight scenes (between armies rather than individuals) are very difficult to recreate convincingly on stage.

The playwright or director is left with two choice; to attempt to find a way of portraying the battle on stage, something that is fraught with difficulty and which rarely emerges coherently or providing any sense of the brutality and terror of war, or to stage the battle offstage and intercut with appropriate scenes. Choosing the second option, as Shakespeare creates a problem in that the audience is always aware that the real excitement is happening elsewhere and it is a struggle to maintain focus.

Film has the advantage of having it both ways; jump-cuts can propel the action without the need for laborious changes of scene, the bewilderingly frenetic action of a medieval battle at ground level can be interweaved with a top-down view that allows the viewer to pick up the rhythm and flow of a wider military operation in progress. The editing room also allows for the surging music to flow through the veins and for the hero to be heard amidst the clamour of war.

The ability of this to manipulate the audience is abundantly clear in the music that underpins the fairly basic structure of Branagh’s St Crispin’s Day speech and amongst the pomp and pageantry captured in the Olivier’s classic version of 1944; two scenes that must rank amongst the most watched of any recorded Shakespeare.

And

The legend of Henry V, be it the battle of Agincourt or Shakespeare’s note that tells of ‘ten thousand French / That in the field lie slain’ against the English ‘Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk /Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:/ None else of name; and of all other men / But five and twenty’ [IV.viii], has laid deep roots in what it means to be English and serves to reinforce the enduring myth of the noble island standing up in the face of overwhelming odds to foreign foes.

Shakespeare’s quill is capable of casting long shadows over England’s history. The rehabilitation of Richard III is still a work in progress and Henry VI has no real place in our history following the magnificently succinct dismissal of his legacy in just four lines at the very end of Henry V: ‘Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King / Of France and England, did this king succeed; / Whose state so many had the managing, / That they lost France and made his England bleed’ [V.V]  

So Henry V, with its multi-purpose king who is at home walking among the common man and issuing rousing speeches to inspire the troops as he is seducing French princesses and charming ambassadors, was always likely to chime with the public. He may as well have come straight out of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, lending a helping hand to Arthur as he attempts to pull Excalibur out of a handily placed stone.

Yet for all of this Henry V remains a very curious play, perhaps not in the sense of the grand complexity of King Lear or the later plays, The Tempest and Cymbeline, which play on a strange magical realism at odds with his earlier realism. In comparison Henry V has a plot of the utmost simplicity and which only touches on the psychological depths of his later work. However it is also structured in a way that is oddly obtuse and can test the patience of an unsuspecting audience; it is telling that Frank Kermode spoke of it as a ‘a play that is many respects unloveable but of cunning construction’.

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