Sunday, December 6, 2015

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Geoffrey Rush as King Lear
All photos by Heidrun Löhr

King Lear by William Shakespeare.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Neil Armfield.  Set design – Robert Cousins; Costumes – Alice Babidge; Lighting – Nick Schlieper; Composer – John Rodgers; Sound – Stefan Gregory; Voice and text coach – Charmian Gradwell.  At Roslyn Packer Theatre (one-time Sydney Theatre) November 24, 2015 – January 9, 2016.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 5


There are a couple of points I want to query, but to have men in the audience, including me, in tears at interval, and again at the end is a measure of the power of this production of King Lear.

It’s thoroughly original in design and performance, taking the meaning of the play apart in a way I have never seen before.

First is the recognition that this is a mythical drama, placing Shakespeare in the company of Sophocles and Euripides.  Though it is partly about the nature of autocratic kingship, which in our modern democracy we may think is no longer relevant, we only have to remember that the Athenian democracy which produced the Ancient Greek theatre did not last long.  Beware!

Where it is about love – conditional or unconditional – this story of familial failings is certainly relevant to us all in any period of human history.  Take care!

In placing our abiding sense of self-importance against the uncomprehending reality of the universe,  this play, in this production, is huge.  We may rail against adversity, but the best we can manage is an acceptance of our human condition, though even this is no consolation.

Our tears at the tyrant’s gouging out the eyes of the naive old man Gloucester, at Lear’s haunting wail as he carries in his dead daughter, still hoping her breath will stir a feather, and at Edgar/Poor Tom’s words which conclude the drama, are as much for ourselves as for any character on the stage.  As Shakespeare wrote, we – “all the men and women” – are “merely players”. 

How much can we hope when the best Edgar can suggest is to “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”, in the face of “The weight of this sad time”?

But we can still hope in one important way.  We can place our hope in art, when we see it at its peak of humanity, maturity and skill.  As I saw it, watching this King Lear.

Being mythic does not imply that the setting must be in an ancient past, nor limited to any time or place.  Robert Cousins has understood this so well that clothing may be modern, words may be amplified with modern technology, nakedness may be explicit as it can at last be on a modern stage, rain may be real water, swords may be no more than short knives; and all may be presented for the first half in black empty space foreboding awful things to come, yet turn white in an even more frightening open space than before.  Every element in costumes, props, becomes significant and imbued with meaning in a weird way.  Every detail stands out in our minds because there are no boundaries which allow us to sit back satisfied.

And every word, every sound, every switch in tone of voice, every little stiffness in movement, or extreme looseness, turns our attention on.  With such a well-chosen cast almost every moment is perfect, dramatically.  Only two elements felt out of place, to me.

As we approach Dover and the invading/rescuing army is still at some distance, its presence is made known by faint and a little too staccato drumming which, at that point, distracted my attention from the characters on stage – until their words made it clear what the sound was.  I think this was a just a matter of timing, perhaps on the night (or in the afternoon as it was in my case).

More concerning for me was the directing of Eryn Jean Norvill as Cordelia.  I’m well aware of Norvill’s qualities as an actor from seeing her in previous shows, so I think even the doyen of directors, Neil Armfield, was in error in making her posture and voice more harsh in effect than seemed right to me.  I was not assuming that Cordelia should be as soft-spoken and forgiving as she is generally played.  I saw in the playing of the three sisters that they each in their own way had to find themselves as independent self-determined women, each at their different ages and stage in their relationship with their father.  Helen Buday’s Goneril had things in control, as she saw things, while Regan as Helen Thomson played her was still on the edge.

I saw in Cordelia the late teenage daughter, without a mother (which Shakespeare never explains) and needing to establish her self.  To that extent, with such an expectant father, I could see her pushing him too hard (which he doesn’t expect, assuming she had been compliant when younger).  So I saw her forcefulness which made sense, and I could explain to some degree her brittle quality of voice as she pushed herself forward with a new youthful sense of purpose.  But when Geoffrey Rush’s beginning-to-be-delusional father reacts as aggressively as he did, I felt there should have been more of a chance that she would soften and back off a little, and use a rounder tone with him – though still not giving in, of course.

I expected this would show her developing sense of maturity, which showed in her dealings with her two suitors.  For me, she left that first scene with less sympathy than I wanted to give her, and I have to say some of that feeling returned when she reappeared as a properly motivated but unsuccessful army commander, saying bitterly to Edmund “We are not the first / Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst”, but then in rounder tones, I think, to her father “For thee, oppressed king, I am cast down; / Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown.” 

Again. maybe it was just on the day, but I felt the presentation of Cordelia was done with less subtlety than I saw in the other characters.

Which brings me to the four characters which are central to the success of the play: Robyn Nevin’s Fool, the Earl of Kent played by Jacek Koman, and the key figures of Edgar/Poor Tom and Lear himself.  Armfield’s direction and the skills of these four ensured they held the play together, notwithstanding the excellence all around them.

Robyn Nevin played with beautiful timing, in relation to the other characters and especially to the audience.  There was a softness in the stand-up comedy that made the question of the Fool’s almost fogotten death terribly poignant.  I’ll mention how effective the ending was a little later.

Being about or perhaps even a bit more than Lear’s age (I’m well past having a teenage daughter), I sometimes found Jacek Koman’s accent a little hard to follow, but his consistency in presenting the always reliable retainer in Kent was done with just the degree of variety needed to make us still willing to hear him out and want to go along with him on the very last page:  “I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me, I must not say no.” 

In some productions this becomes sentimental, but there was a shock and even tears to realise Kent’s sacrifice for the sake of humanity.

It may go without saying that Geoffrey Rush would be a great King Lear, but what made him so?  For me, in contrast with other Lears I’ve seen, it was his special relationship with Poor Tom, apparently mad, a guise taken on by Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar to escape attack from his jealous born-out-of-wedlock brother, Edmund.  Mark Leonard Winter plays Edgar, while Edmund is played by Meyne Wyatt.

Lear takes Poor Tom for real.  Poor Tom’s a-cold because he is, literally, naked.  As Edgar plays Poor Tom more and more wildly to maintain his disguise, Lear begins to match him, stripping off his clothes which barely protect him from the constant rain.  To the horror of the Fool and Kent, but to my admiration for the actors’ willingness to go for broke, Rush’s Lear joins Winter’s Poor Tom in a kind of devilish dance, reminding me of the witches’ sabbath scene in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique.

In other productions Poor Tom has been a-cold and timorous, while Lear has stayed too kingly, even as a pretence.  However justified in some directors’ analysis, Geoffrey Rush and Mark Leonard Winter transport us into a kind of euphoric state, almost ecstatic in their loss of normal constraint.  This was acting at its very best.

And so to the end, which for me has always posed a problem.  Most of the deaths – of Goneril, Regan and Edmund – are off-stage.  Only Lear, cradling the dead Cordelia, is on stage with his supporters Albany, Kent and Edgar.  Quite out of the blue, as he is dying, Lear says “And my poor fool is hang’d!”  Albany says “Bear them hence,” the last words are spoken, then Exeunt, with a dead march.

As a young student I thought this was a boring ending, and in other productions the energy has dropped even before Lear has finally died.  And how did Lear know the Fool was hanged, considering that we hadn’t seen or heard of him since Act III?  Another interpretation, though, is that Lear is referring to Cordelia as his “poor fool”, since we know that Edmund ordered her to be hanged.  Either way, the end concerned me.

But at last I have seen how to do the end properly.  As a play of mythical proportions, Armfield and the design team bring on the dead, including the Fool, bit by bit as the final scene proceeds.  Against white nothingness figures take their place, standing stiff, with the face and the palm of one hand blackened, just as Gloucester’s empty eye sockets had turned black.  At the point when Lear dies, the sense of dread from the surrounding dead reaches a climax, the last words are spoken, and the curtain drops steadily and deliberately. 

Magnificent!  And a standing ovation!

LtoR: Colin Moody, Helen Thomson, Eryn Jean Norvill, Geoffrey Rush, Mark Leonard Winter as
Duke of Cornwall, Regan, Cordelia, King Lear, Edgar. (Wade Briggs as King of France is out of shot)
Act I, Scene1

Robyn Nevin and Geoffrey Rush as
Fool and King Lear

Helen Buday, Colin Moody, Geoffrey Rush, Robyn Nevin, Nick Masters as
Goneril, Albany, Lear, Fool,

Mark Leonard Winter, Jacek Koman, Geoffrey Rush, Robyn Nevin as
Poor Tom, Earl of Kent, King Lear, Fool

Max Cullen, Mark Leonard Winter, Geoffrey Rush as
blinded Earl of Gloucester, Edgar/Poor Tom, King Lear

Meyne Wyatt and Helen Thomson as
Edmund and Regan

Geoffrey Rush and Eryn Jean Norvill as
King Lear and Cordelia
Act V, Scene 3

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