King Lear, Act 1, Scene 2
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Moving on to the actual content of my blog, I went to see ‘King Lear’ at the Almeida Theatre, directed by Michael Attenborough and starring Jonathan Pryce as the titular character, and, having seen the Red Rose Chain’s production about two months ago, I compared/contrasted the two the whole way through – although don’t worry, I wasn’t overly obsessive, I still enjoyed it for it’s own sake!
I think it’s probably wise to begin by comparing the two Lear’s, since it is usually considered one of the most demanding and challenging roles in all of the canon. The two actors were completely different, in even the most material of ways; in the Red Rose Chain production, Lear was played by Edward Day, who’s only 27 and is therefore one of the youngest ever Lears, whereas Jonathan Pryce is an established and acclaimed Shakespearean actor. Both were good, although Day took much more of a comedic approach, at least at the start. I would probably say I enjoyed Day’s interpretation more at the start (if only because he entered on a pink and leopard print motorised scooter – see left-), since I felt Pryce was a bit too angry and seemed to be consistently shouting at the beginning of the play. However, as soon as Pryce’s Lear was cast out of Goneril and Regan’s castles into the storm: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” I started to realise why he is such a famous Shakespearean actor. His mad scenes and the way he seemed to suddenly switch when he saw ‘Poor Tom’ (Edgar in disguise) were incredible; quite funny at times, but also terribly pathetic. The line “Never, never, never, never, never” can seem ridiculous when read out awkwardly in class by a less-than-willing student, but it was my absolute favourite line of the whole play. Just… I don’t know if I can even explain how chilling and mournful it was; each ‘never’ was completely different to the previous one, yet the tone was consistent throughout (and to a singer that is so important). Don’t get me wrong, Day was actually really good as well, but by the end you could see Pryce’s experience completely taking over. However, one thing I found quite creepy about Pryce’s Lear was the incestuous overtones the production gave him. Obviously this made Goneril and Regan’s desertion of him later in the play more understandable, especially considering his frightening rages he flies into during the first scene, yet… for me, it made Cordelia and Lear’s relationship much creepier and more sinister. As the Guardian review says: “This is a Lear one understands rather than sympathises with.”
The Fool is a central part of ‘King Lear’, since he acts as Lear’s voice of reason; he has the foresight to see how Lear’s daughters will treat him and his relationship with Lear is one of friendship and dependency (this dependency is two way – the Fool is dependent on Lear for protection in the court, but the true dependency of Lear on the Fool for loyalty and honesty is revealed during the dreadful night of the storm). I found a pretty good quote on the Fool from the Royal Shakespeare Company: “The Fool provides wit in this bleak play and unlike some of Shakespeare’s clowns who seem unfunny to us today because their topical jokes no longer make sense, the Fool in King Lear ridicules Lear’s actions and situation in such a way that audiences understand the point of his jokes.” The Fool in the Almeida production (played by Trevor Fox, (see right with Pryce) who I saw about a year ago in ‘The Pitman Painters’) supported all these points; he was incredibly wise, yet very concerned about Lear throughout, and I loved his Geordie accent! The Red Rose Chain production did a completely different and unique take on the Fool; they used a puppet, operated by Lear himself. Having read the programme, it turns out this decision was a result of looking at reports of ventriloquists who said they found they were much more able to reveal their secret emotions when using their puppets, and therefore the Fool in this production was literally Lear’s sub-conscious. Having found out about this before, I was pretty excited to see how well they portrayed this. If I’m honest, doing my research before really helped, because I understood what was happening when the puppet was brought out, whereas I think the trick left quite a lot of the audience a little confused. Basically, a great concept, but not brought off quite as well as it could have been. One thing my mum noted, but not, I’m ashamed to say, me, was that the Fool disappears from the stage when Cordelia returns and vice versa. I did a little bit of investigatiom into this and found out that this is one of the biggest points of debate; as Lear holds the dead Cordelia in the final scene he says: “And my poor fool is hanged” which could refer to either or both the Fool and Cordelia.
Moving on to why I chose the quote I did for the title of this post, Edmund was one of my favourite characters in both productions. I know, I know, he’s a villian, but he isn’t like Iago, a villian for villainy’s sake. He has a reason to hold a grudge against his father: “Wherefore base?” and one of my favourite speeches of the play is his mockery of the way everyone blames the stars for their fate and their mistakes to excuse themsleves for their actions:
“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves thieves and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards liars and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!”
Both Edmunds (Kieran Bew in the Almeida’s production and Scott Ellis in the Red Rose Chain version – see below-) were extremely good; very convincingly villainous, alluring to both Goneril and Regan and nicely focused on self-preservation. One thing I did fine slightly weird was the length of time it took Ellis’ Edmund to die! They made the decision not to take his dying body off, as they did in the Almeida, and so it felt like he spent an awful lot of time bleeding slowly to death – almost reminiscent of Pyramus in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. However, I maintain that I thought Edmund was one of the most interesting characters in the play in both productions.
I’ve probably spent long enough talking about the characters I found the most interesting, but suffice to say that in both productions most of the parts were acted well, especially Chook Sibtain as the Duke of Cornwall at the Almeida and both Cordelias: Pheobe Fox at the Almeida and Lauryn Redding at the Red Rose Chain. One thing I personally didn’t like in the Red Rose Chain was the way Gloucester was dressed. Call me bloodthirsty, but the gruesome, graphic way his eyes were gouged out and then chucked on the floor like “vile jelly” at the Almeida was one of my favourite parts, whereas the weird space goggles worn in the other production seemed a bit out of place, and they made it hard to sympathise with Gloucester as a person; he seemed like an alien out of ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ rather than a pathetic, confused father (see right). The storm was particularly well done in the Almeida production, but (this may go against most Shakespeare academics’ opinions) I thought the more slapstick opening scene of the Red Rose Chain was great. The aforementioned motorised scooter obviously contributed to this, but the beat-boxing/singing by Goneril and Regan in efforts to convince their father of their love was also very funny and a hit with the audience, although it perhaps didn’t gel as well as it could have with some of the later, more depressing scenes.
Basically two really good productions, but I definitely prefered the Almeida one; perhaps I’m being too conservative, but it works when played straight, so why not do it straight? Plus, I’m so glad to have seen Jonathan Pryce (see below) and he didn’t disappoint, particularly during the second act (which I think started from Act 4 in this production). Although there were several great bits in the Red Rose Chain production, I think their comedies have been brilliant in a way that I don’t think this tragedy was.
I should probably relate this back to my EPQ in some way, so, although I’ve decided to focus on ‘Richard III’ and ‘Henry V’ for analysation, the Fool is especially interesting to consider as a character. In literal ways, he was played completely differently in both performances, yet what he says means that his role as the voice of reason can’t change for the play to properly work. I suppose this is the same with the Chorus in ‘Henry V’, who is unique to that play and who has some of the most beautiful lines. He/she/they can be played differently but the way that the positive outlook of the lines juxtaposes with some of the brutal action on stage means that the role has to stay the same to some extent for the play to work, unlike some of Shakespeare’s other character’s who are much more flexible e.g. Henry himself, or Romeo and Juliet.
Anyway, thanks for reading this ridiculously long post, and thanks for reading and commenting – please keep doing so! Coming up, I’ll be blogging about ‘Brideshead Revisited’ Evelyn Waugh, ‘ROOM’ Emma Donaghue, ‘Year of Wonders’ Geraldine Brooks and lots more, so keep checking back 🙂