Saturday, April 17, 2010

Theatre by Frank McKone: King Lear by William Shakespeare

King Lear by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare Company directed by Marion Potts at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre April 15 – May 1, 2010.

If there is one thing King Lear makes clear, it is that kings can’t expect to comfortably retire on a super pension, even if it is backed by 100 knights. What about an actor/director?  John Bell’s constitution is more than impressive.  It’s amazing to me that he can go on putting out such energy night after night (and present himself for the public at the opening night cast party).  Can he keep going?

Considering the historical significance of this play and this production, there is as much to say about Marion Potts’ directing, the design and execution, as there is about the acting.  In King Lear and The Tempest, though their earthly political plots look superficially familiar, Shakespeare took flight creatively into an ethereal theatre of symbolism.

Because this production marks the 20th anniversary of the Bell Shakespeare Company as well as the year in which John Bell turns three score and ten (and the $15 Anniversary Edition Souvenir Program includes a Wesfarmers advert titled “Presenting the Extraordinary”), I cannot avoid the question, does Bell Shakespeare reach the heights of William Shakespeare?

BHPBilliton quotes Ben Johnson: He was not of an age, but for all time.  They go on “This comment was made about Shakespeare but we think it also holds true for John Bell.”  It’s nice of the biggest mining company in the world to pay for the privilege of saying so, but I think it’s not entirely true.  John, indeed,  has placed himself in a more realistic relationship with William in his note as Artistic Director, writing It is incontestable that, to some extent, Shakespeare invented us; and through constant engagement with his work, we go on re-inventing ourselves.

So, to the performance I saw on April 16, 2010 just ten days short of William’s 446th birthday. 

The beginning was extraordinary as a circular white curtain rose to reveal the Lear family isolated in an island of light.  Off to the side, but made visible, the instruments of emotion interplayed with the action of the sculptural figures in the centre of our attention.  Here was King Lear prefiguring The Tempest.  Shakespeare’s words were as clear as we might expect from Bell, and the scene was set for “Nothing will come of nothing.”  Much, in theatre, will come of simplicity.  The open stage with no more than a central raised revolve, with light and sound, was all that was needed.  Stage design held the play in place.

For this we must thank Marion Potts, designer Dale Ferguson, lighting designer Nick Schlieper, sound designer Stefan Gregory, and composer Bree van Reyk: seen and heard, even though largely mysterious to us spectators. 

But the edge was taken off the imaginative intensity, at various points and in various ways.  I found it difficult to feel the purity of truth in the naïve Cordelia, dressed as she was in a mess of clothing, in which she reappeared, with the addition of a cloak, years later as the mature Queen of France.  She needed clean lines, simple in style in Scene 1 to contrast with her overblown sisters, an idealistic 15 year old who naturally would entrance the King of France, with or without a dowry.  As grown-up strategic leader of the rescue invasion, she should more than match her sisters for wealth in a costume of plain elegance. 

Cordelia was always my favourite Shakespeare character, and I was disappointed, even though I could not fault the quality of any of the acting.  The characters seemed to be speaking just as themselves, even when speaking directly to the audience.  Whatever they symbolise, there was never a hint of “speaking Shakespeare”.  Perhaps the audience responded to three actors in particular (though their parts also help) – Peter Carroll as The Fool, Tim Walter as Edmund and Leah Purcell as Regan, especially when she makes her move on Edmund.  So spiteful towards her rival, her sister Goneril , a ferocious Jane Montgomery Griffiths.

The speed and ease of entrances and exits made the set work wonderfully.  The transitions from scene to scene are so often a major point of weakness in other productions, but never in Bell Shakespeare.  However, I was surprised that the on-stage musical instruments disappeared after interval and sound became distant and only electronic.  It was an emotional loss, especially because in the first half, characters used the instruments to comment on themselves.  It was an imaginative master stroke, for example, to have Lear strike a cymbal and use his stick to strike an inferior character.

But the major disappointment for me was the staging of the ending of the play.  Why were Lear and Cordelia left grovelling on the floor downstage left, where I could not see them except by wriggling about trying to peer between the audience’s heads in front of me?  Why were they not taken to the central circle?  Why didn’t the ending reprise the opening, with Lear and Cordelia isolated on the island, delicately enclosed again in the white curtain while Kent and Edgar spoke the words which reinforced what Cordelia had said in Scene 1?  Am I being too obvious?  Shouldn’t the symbolism be made this clear?

And, returning at last to the constitution of John Bell, I have found, over perhaps the last ten years or so, that the quality of his voice has often become restricted to a flat, rather thin sounding tone.  This could work, for example, when he played Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, but it left me cold in King Lear.  On the night, there was much strength and range of tone in Scene 1, but by the storm scene I lost feeling for this huge old man facing up to the elements as if he might defeat whatever they could throw at him, and in the final scene I could not feel the loss that this father felt, realising that his failing was the cause of his true daughter’s death.

Perhaps it is the clarity of meaning which John Bell has brought to the performance of Shakespeare, (which I still remember being impressed by when I first saw him in a tent in Adelaide in 1964, and still today is a great achievement), that has taken the focus off the creation of emotion in those of us watching.  So I conclude that this production is in many ways a very good presentation of  King Lear, but it does not reach the heady heights of Shakespeare’s imagination.