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>>

And so goodbye to summer…

For regular theatre goers there can be few markers that you have passed the last dregs of summer than no longer suffering a twinge of jealousy as you walk past all the tourists drinking merrily on the South Bank as you take your seat in the hot, sweaty and dark auditorium.

Not that, as we were constantly reminded, this was a summer like any other. In effect normality went into a two month hiatus as London, and in time the rest of the country, came to a complete standstill as we eventually recognised that we are not nearly as useless as we enjoy telling each other we are. The trains arrived, the people were friendly, we avoided being blown up by terrorists or trigger-happy missile silos, the army ran the logistics and G4S ran nothing and the Mo-Bot became a meme. In short the Olympics and the Paralympics happened and everyone forgot about the rain.

In between all of this excitement the London theatre scene quietly ticked over in the background. Unsurprisingly Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s predictions of audience carnage proved entirely wrong as the West End’s goal of relieving punters of ever increasing amounts of money from their cash-strapped wallets in exchange for third-rate musicals culled from second-rate films continued remorselessly onwards. Luckily for the rest of us the National Theatre proved that affordable theatre can have depth, resonance and even the odd sprinkling of star power.

The revival of London Road – transplanted to the Olivier – was an example of how to draw on a weighty subject with a lightness of touch that is rare among those more used to the deadening hand of television. Having somehow contrived to miss the first run, despite being aware of the sacksful of critical praise that it gathered meant that this was a must see. The fact that the engrossing Katherine Fleetwood reprised her role only added as an extra incentive – an actor indelibly marked in my brain following her unforgettable turn as the strongest Lady Macbeth I have had the fortune to see, and surely a match for Judy Dench’s classic portrayal, in Rupert Goold’s memorable production.

How unfortunate to have been released in the same year as the equally critically-acclaimed and certainly rather more family-friendly Matilda, London Road never received the awards it richly deserved but the fact it could sell out the Olivier for a musical based on interviews with people who lived on the same road as Richard Wright, the Ipswich serial killer, tells its own story about the power of the production.

A truly haunting piece, skilfully manipulated and never less than engaging, it raises many interesting questions about the stories that aren’t told; the impact on the community, the everyday people, of a media circus and a major police operation. Whilst there are legitimate questions over how composite characters reflect the truth and whether they bring forward narrative interest over narrative truth, there is enough in the words and the playful skill with which they are turned into song that sets this apart as a musical of rare power and intelligence.

Alongside this, the Olivier season included Simon Russell Beale giving us Timon of Athens. Without fail described as a difficult play, Timon of Athens has so many contemporary resonances that it should mean more to us. The parallels of the first half to the modern day are so clear, so apparent, that one almost hopes that the play doesn’t resume after the interval. This production, like so many before it, faced and failed the classic problem of trying to unpick and restitch Shakespeare to craft a specific relevance to modern times.

Watching the rise and inevitable fall of Timon, one is both appalled by the actions of Athenians but also frustrated by Timon’s obvious naiveté. It is hard to truly accept that Timon could have fared so well in society based on the actions we see in the play. The fault here is part Shakespeare and part Simon Russell Beale – who was a strangely passive and reedy presence in a play that really demands a lot of heft. His slightly cherubic public school persona – so perfect as Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time – feels out of place in his hermit hovel on the outskirts of the city.

The most interesting aspect of the play is to follow the generally accepted fact that the play was written by two different playwrights. Shakespeare, it is assumed, is responsible for the grandstanding and most of the second half, and Middleton, who is believed to behind the city-based Athenians. It is clear that when one thinks of the play in these terms, it is Shakespeare who comes off worst. Middleton’s play fizzes with a comic satire and adds to his reputation as one of the great comic playwrights of the Elizabethan era. His background characters hit the stage fully formed and when interacting with one another there is a robust and fascinating take on the avarice of Athenian society but the play too often grinds to a deathly halt once the moralising fury of Timon takes centre stage.

It was a disappointing production underpinning a disappointing play. There are many who call Simon Russell Beale one of our finest character actors, yet the case is still to be made of his credentials as a great Shakespearian actor following his rather undercooked Falstaff with this forgettable Timon.

Falstaff take centre stage as The Hollow Crown reveals its brutal truth

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part II – BBC 2

So Shakespeare continues on the BBC with Henry IV Part II and Falstaff discovering just how hollow the crown can be. It remains testament to Shakespeare’s talent that despite the clear danger of offending the monarchy he could write a play about kingship that would show it to be an undesirable burden that turns saviours into tyrants.

The old dying king, Henry IV, is laid bare before the audience; his noble persona stripped aware by a ravaging illness and worn down by the internecine rivalries of his nobles and the licentious behaviour of his heir. The regal nature of Jeremy Iron’s Henry has long since disappeared to be replaced by a solitary figure forced to send others to fight his wars and left to restlessly wander the palace at night exhorting that “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” [III.i].

It is worth mentioning that Irons is magnificent as Henry IV – as it is a part often forgotten under the weight of the Hal/Falstaff relationship. Iron’s Henry captures the viewers’ attention with an exceptional understanding of verse speaking and bringing real intelligence to the dialogue. The great speech where he discovers Hal upon the throne and lashes out with “What! canst thou not forbear me half an hour? / Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself” [IV.v] proves one of the real highlights of the series so far and brings just a glimpse of a potential King Lear – a  proposition that really does make the mouth water.

Tom Hiddleston’s Hal does not provide the tempting alternative that Shakespeare would later paint with far more grandeur in Henry V. As with last week, Hiddleston gives us a Hal that, for all his revelry and low-flung behaviour, is very much in control of his character. He may feel warmth to these people but he also is self-aware enough to retain a certain detachment as a king would his subjects. Hal is shown to be the kind of figure who would make a good king but possibly an even better tyrant.

Richard Eyre focusses on melancholy as the central theme of this production of Henry IV Part II. It is a melancholy centred around the relationships Falstaff has throughout the play which draw out his own tragic self-awareness that so often is hidden behind bluster. Simon Russell Beale gives us a Falstaff that continues to scheme but who is fatally unable to change his character and for whom the dead-hand of time continues to advance.

<<Continue to full review>>

Much more on BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked here

 

Hiddleston’s impresses as Hal but Eyre’s Henry can’t quite match Goold’s Richard

Henry IV part I: The Hollow Crown – BBC 2  / BBC HD

Following the rapturous reception received by Goold’s treatment of Richard II was always going to be a challenge; the highly experienced Richard Eyre was assigned the task of continuing The Hollow Crown through Henry IV parts I and II, and on last night’s offering is set to deliver a textually inventive if slightly visually austere riposte.

Overall The Hollow Crown concept has been left a little exposed – clever and audience-enticing as it may be – as the stylistic dissimilarities mean that, other than the continuation of history, there is little in Henry IV part I that audiences would recognise from the filmic vistas of Goold’s Richard II.

Fortunately Shakespeare is not constrained by the straightjacket of slick BBC publishing. Henry IV part I is a play that needs no extra gloss; it contains his most-loved character in Falstaff and gives the audience, as Simon Schama pointed to in his recent documentary, a view of England from the bottom-up. This is in direct contrast to a Richard II that inhabited the world of kings and noble elites.

It’s also a play in which Shakespeare sketches out, in Prince Hal, the images that he would shade in later in one of his greatest creations, Hamlet – complete with two fathers (Falstaff and Henry IV pre-empting Claudius and the Ghost) and a play within a play (the great Act II Scene IV where Hal, in the guise of his Father, banishes Falstaff).

There is a seismic shift in language between Richard II and Henry IV. The world of Richard’s verse has been replaced by the more naturalistic prose of Henry Bolingbroke, now Henry IV. It serves to emphasise the working people that inhabit the play; the phrasing and speech reflects the way people actually talk to one another. It reflects a changing England; the shattering of Richard’s divine right and replaced by a, now frail and ill, Henry IV paranoid to the threat of conspirators. There is no place in this landscape for the playful verse that marked Richard II. This point is rammed home by Shakespeare through Harry Percy who ridicules and undercuts the fanciful imagery put forward by Glendower about his birth.

The core of Henry IV is not, of course, the King but his son, Prince Hal. Falstaff may steal the show but he is not the heart; the heart is the relationship of Hal to his two fathers, the King and the Fool, and the inevitable renunciation of the latter in order to safeguard the former.

In this production Eyre appears to have taken a very deliberate step to recast Hal and Falstaff’s relationship away from the loving underpinnings with which it is normally shown. It is usual to show a warmth and affection in Hal when he undercuts Falstaff’s numerous embellishments but here there is coldness in Tom Hiddleston’s Hal. This is introduced from the very opening scenes of the play and Hal’s speech where he talks of renouncing his way of life; it is delivered in voiceover and there is an added potency to lines like ‘So when this loose behaviour I throw off’ [I.ii] given out in contemptuous manner at the same time as Hiddleston’s Hal strides through the Boar’s Head. Outwardly he is smiling, winking, interacting, whilst his interior monologue makes clear he understands that he is just playing a part that will be discarded.

<<Continue to full review>>

More Shakespeare than you can shake a spear at

Ok, while I may have just been put myself in the running for most laboured pun of 2011, it has been done with the best of intentions. As the Olympics loom into view, it finally appears that the country is kicking into gear and putting together an impressive programme that will deliver on some of things that we undoubtedly do best (and no, sadly it isn’t the 100m).

It may be somewhat predictable but it certainly looks like the UK are planning to cash in one of their most lasting assets – Shakespeare. And in a fine display of collaboration, venues as dispirate as the Globe, the Barbican, the Roundhouse and the Hammersmith Riverside Studios are embarking on a truly Olympean programming schedule. The Globe alone will be performing every single one of the agreed Shakespeare canon (and on a sidenote for Mr Emmerich, please note that it is the World Shakespeare Festival, not the World Earl of Oxford Festival).

And in keeping with the Olympian spirit, the programmers have scoured the world to bring a truly international flavour to the festival. Whether it is a Tunisian Macbeth, an Afghan Comedy of Errors or a Zimbabwean Two Gentleman of Verona, there is something to suit any palette and demonstrates just how important Shakespeare is to the world of theatre. It underscores that Shakespeare, a playwright occasionally derided my philistines as being too complex for modern audiences, can operate in any language, subject to incredibly varied styles and still emerge as the single most important dramatist in history. And the philistines? To quote the great man himself “More of your conversation will infect my brain”, and if a country in as much turmoil as Afghanistan can stage a complex identity-swapping play like the Comedy of Errors, I think it is surely not to much to expect an audience to watch it.

5 to watch this summer

1) Timon of Athens – National Theatre, Dates to be confirmed

It is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. After a first half that generally cracks alone and builds to a crescendo with Timon turning on those he had previously regarded as his friends and retreating to be a hermit on the outskirts of the city, the second half really does present a problem for a director – it consisting mainly of scene after scene of visitors and a more and more unpleasant Timon. However it is this challenge which means it makes the list – Simon Russell Beale is one our finest current Shakespearian actors and if he can’t do justice to the part then it may go down as one of Shakespeare’s very few missteps.

2) The Comedy of Errors – The Globe, 30 – 31 May

A chance to catch something really special. This Afghanistan company performed Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2005; the groundbreaking nature of this shouldn’t be overstated. In a country that was ruled a few years previously by the Taliban and drama completely forbidden, we had reached a point where men and women were able to act together. Along the way many taboos were broken; women did not always wear headscarves and lovers held hands. The Globe has managed to get their first performances outside of Kabul and they will be putting on The Comedy of Errors, a play of mistaken identifies and farcical situations.  The results could be as spectacular as they are interesting.

3) Hamlet – The Globe, 02 – 03 June

Now if anything deserves the title unmissable it is probably this production from the legendary Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrosius. His Hamlet is regarded as one of the most celebrated Shakespearean productions of our age and for the first time, after substantial world tours, it comes to London for the first time. Yes, it is Hamlet and it will be 3 hours and it will be in Lithuanian and it is the Globe and you may have to stand up. But there are times when you must suffer for your art and, due to the rather Anglo-american focus of most British theatre, this offers a rare chance to see one of  the true greats of European theatre. Simply: go, see.

 4) The Rest is Silence – Hammersmith Riverside Studios, 13 – 23 June

Yes, I know there are two Hamlet’s in the list and many people think that one is more than enough for one year. However given   that it is a dreamthinkspeak production, it is quite likely that this will be Hamlet only in so far Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is  an accurate depiction of Bronte’s novel. We are promised a textual and visual deconstruction of the play, which will utilise performance, film and installation to cut through the textual certainties that we may be used to. For some this may already sound hideously prententious and, given their reviews of Ian Rickson’s latest Hamlet at the Young Vic, it is unlikely Messirs Billington and Spencer will be rushing to see it. For those who remain alive to the possibilities that modern multimedia presents to a playwright of Shakespeare’s calibre, it also can be seen as an exciting opportunity.

5) Romeo and Juliet – The Globe, 19 – 20 June 

And deservedly back to the Globe for no. 5. Providing the spine for the festival and dedicating their versatile space to companies from around the world across May and June, hopefully they will get the audience and publicity they deserve for this ambitious and difficult project. An almost guaranteed sell-out – a Brazilian Romeo & Juliet at the height of summer should be a winner. The production is regarded as one of the most famous productions coming out of the Americas’. Grupo Galpão’s brings a carnival atmosphere to the Globe; mixing circus, dance and musicc with traditional Brazilian folk culture to produce something incredibly special. We are talking passion with a capital P.

You can find out far, far more about the World Shakespeare Festival here: http://www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk/

You can find out more about the World Cities Festival here: http://www.worldstageslondon.com/

And my own earlier witterings on the World Cities Festival is here: http://civiliansguidetothetheatre.com/2011/10/04/the-cultural-olympiad-better-late-then-never/