Mid-Table in a League of Lears...


“The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”
Some of the concluding words of Shakespeare's King Lear (spoken by Edgar... and not Albany as I originally misattributed it until corrected below!) and as good a point to start as any... Never been one to hesitate speaking (or writing) what I feel... and on this one, I doubt that anyone will care what I feel, or think... As ever, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Hundreds of people giving a standing ovation to the Donmar Warehouse's touring production of King Lear starring Derek Jacobi, clearly had a divergent opinion to my own, which was essentially "Glad to be here, but its nothing special."
Why do I say that? Well, first let's put this in context... I probably know this play better than any Shakespeare apart from Macbeth (pause to go outside, spit, turn round and do everything else you're supposed to do if you forget to refer to it as "the Scottish play") and have now seen 4 high profile professional productions, 3 film/TV productions and performed in one student production. Each take on the title role has been different... for me, Paul Scofield's film performance in the 1960s Peter Brook production is the baseline against which all others are judged, and there is a tightrope to be walked between the strength of character required to belive that this is a King who could hold a country in his sway, and dispose of huge portions of it at his fiat... whilst descending into helpless senility/madness within the course of the play... The man who enters into Act 1 Scene 1 is a man on the very cusp... Scofield, and later Hopkins on the National Stage, conveyed the strength and power, but were less convincing in the scenes of madness...(I was sorry when the much-touted film production with Hopkins was dropped a couple of years ago), Olivier's Channel 4 performance captured the fragility of age, but he was beyond the point of having the power to convey what was necessary in the first scene... while both were beyond Richard Briers in Branagh's Renaissance production... It is unfair to make any judgement on Michael Hordern's Jonathan Millar directed BBC version, first, because I remember so little of it I saw it so long ago, and because the production values of that entire series were so low), but the worst I have ever seen (student production included) was Anthony Quayle's Compass Theatre production, which reduced me to helpless mirth, as he turned in a performance that was on the one hand old-school ham-actor, and the other akin to a performance of Lear by Spike Milligan. Unfortunately I didn't see Ian McKellen, Ian Holm or Brian Cox's interpretations, but, I've seen a lot of Lears, good, bad, indifferent and mixed. And last night's definitely fits into the last category...
First the production as a whole, and the good points of it. It was a pared down production both in terms of staging, with a muted greyscale colourscheme, all the better for making the blood of Gloucester's mutilation stand out (akin to the red coated girl in Schindler's list), and in terms of script... Whoever was responsible for paring down the dialogue, excising extraneous details and characters without losing the sense or depth of the plot and poetry (yes there were a few beautiful lines ditched along the way, but not so many that you felt you were being short-changed), deserves an award... I have rarely if ever been at a Lear that moved along with such pace, and never been at a Shakespeare where the meaning and moment of each line was so clear. Some of the diction wasn't as clear as it might have been (though that didn't apply to Jacobi despite a lot of publicity regarding his voice problems before the show...)
But, whilst the pared down nature of the production probably reflects the intimate surroundings of the Donmar Warehouse, opened out onto the mainhouse stage of the Belfast Opera House, with a larger and more distant audience, the actors seemed to rattle around a little... The basic blocking seemed somewhat shambolic, and the actual physical distance between the actors throughout most of the play spoke of a lack of passion and involvement... (I suggested to Sal that this was the theatrical equivalent of "barrier nursing" creating a sterile environment, but she dismissed this as a "catchy line". I stand by it though.) This made the much-spoken of "ball-grabbing" scene much less powerful than it might have been... It came out of nowhere, sitting like some sort of setpiece that had no real psychological or physical context. While I'm on the subject of physicality, however, the fight scenes and other expressions of violence had no real power to them... (even those in our student production had more bite...)
And that lack of power is true of the whole production... Speeches were well delivered (Edmund's "stand up for bastards" soliloquy worked well for example, and Jacobi's underplayed storm speeches were great) but there was no real ongoing dynamic development of the characters or relationships... It is curiously anaemic, and passionless. I'm an emotional wreck at the moment and can be reduced to tears by a lunchtime episode of "Doctors". Normally Lear's final two scenes, first on the way to prison with Cordelia and his final scene mourning her loss (apologies for spoiling the ending if you didn't know it) tear at my heartstrings, but last night - nothing... just a cool appreciation of craft...
The original production in the Donmar was highly lauded. Tickets for it were hot property and a number of friends that I respect spoke highly of it, there was a multiplicity of 4 and 5 star recommendations on the back of the programme/script, and a brief scan across the internet will produce any number of gushing reviews. Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph went so far as to describe it as:
"the finest and most searching Lear I have ever seen..."
Well, as I said earlier, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and perhaps he has seen a different set of Lears from myself... or seen something different in them and in this. Again, I do suspect that the setting of the Donmar helped to create an intensity that is easily disapated in larger, more traditional theatres, and this was the first night of what is only the second venue on their tour schedule, so perhaps they aren't up to speed yet. I look forward to reading what friends make of it later in the week and what the notices around the "provinces" say. However, I do believe that in this play more than most, whatever the vision of the director (in this case Michael Grandage), the style and tone of the lead actor makes all the difference. And this is where I think that Michael Coveney in the Independent got it right, introducing his review back on 8 December 2010 saying:
"He is the most exacting and pernickety of actors, Derek Jacobi, which means that his long-awaited Lear will never open the floodgates. There's something guarded and "worked out" about it, but it is most beautifully spoken and detailed. It's also terribly polite."
I love Derek Jacobi as an actor... His C-C-C-Claudius was a work of genius... I've seen him (on the same stage) reduce an entire audience to tears in his portrayal of Alan Turing in "Breaking the Code." But Coveney's analysis is spot on... His "guarded", and "polite" precision is ideal for a Turing, but sells Lear far short. (This could also be said of his Cyrano... where his mannered performance in the RSC production seems bloodless compared with Depardieu's visceral film appearance.) In an online review of a film of the Donmar production, which describes this as "Jacobi's crowning glory" Theresa Smith suggests that it is "a play of words." I might be tempted to say, what else can it be? But actually that might be the strength and the weakness of this production... particularly when lifted out of the intimate intensity of the Donmar... It may offer us the words in their distilled form, but there is no real depth of flavour...
But don't take my word for it, or even Michael Coveney's. Go see it if you can get a ticket (and don't start me on how difficult it is to actually book multiple tickets on the Opera House's internet booking system) or look out for the filmed version of the Donmar production...
Meanwhile, I'm off to order the Brook/Scofield version on DVD...

Comments

Anonymous said…
Your analysis is ridiculous. You claim to have seen a "lot of Lears", and have key knowledge of the play- yet your opening quote here is ascribed to Albany, when infact it is spoken by Edgar. You completely discredit yourself - immediately.

Sour grapes methinks. That's before you waffle on about your student production . Oh dear.

Mid table mediocrity in a long list of opinions.
mea culpa - the attribution of the quote was obviously wrong... and my opinions are duly discredited...
My reference to mediocrity was, however inappropriate... The production wasn't mediocre... It was pacy and precise, but just curiously lacking in power and passion...
As for the student production, it was simply that, and no better or worse than most...
I appreciate your opinion of my opinions... even if you think them ridiculous.
Have duly amended the text to acknowledge my error, and have removed the totally unfair reference to mediocrity in the title...

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