An archdeacon, now a bishop sitting in the House of Lords, told me of her amusement at having received a message from me telling her that, after a shitty day in the parish, I was off to relax by watching one old man go mad while another had his eyes plucked out.
It was meant to raise a laugh, even if the dramatic events referred to should not. If they do, there is something rotten in the state of Learmark.
The length of the first half of the performance is crucial. The times have gone when a five act play would be a day long affair with refreshments breaks – Shakespeare is not quite in Glyndebourneland.
I often ask theatre staff how long the first half will be for two reasons: whether it is bladder-wise to have a gin and tonic before curtain up or whether I will need one at the interval.
It is a decision based on experience. Most productions pivot on the barbarism of the Duke of Cornwall and Regan in plucking out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester. I can imagine the production meeting: ‘Do we want to make people sick before or after they eat their ice creams?’
What happens in Act Three, Scene Seven is brutal in the extreme. Shakespeare proves his powers by mixing high drama with ultraviolence in a way that would have appealed, and still does appeal, to theatregoers of high and low taste.
First timers are warned it is going to be gruelling. Cornwall tells Edmund, the bastard son become betrayer, that ‘the revenges we are bound to take upon your traitorous father are not fit for your beholding.’ That judgment does not extend to the audience.
Shakespeare ensures – or at least his later interpreters do – that what follows is one of the most squirming-in-seat experiences in the theatrical canon. Indeed, many people choose to view it through hands over the face, or closing their eyes when it gets too much.
In much the same vein as Qoholeth warns that age brings on a deepening fear of heights (Ecclesiastes 12:5), experienced Lear watchers should give a heads-up: it does not matter how many times you have seen this bit of the show, it still hurts.
Variations abound: how to bind or hold Gloucester – ropes, straps, onto the chair, frame, or manly restraint; the implements used – a 1960s style ice cube tool, stirrups, meat hook, spoon, screwdriver, bare hands; and what to do with the eyes once out – if you throw them, do they bounce or not, splat, squish or just get stamped on or even eaten?
And there is the vexed reaction of those watching. The action depends on the response of one servant who, in a deadly tussle with Cornwall, stands up for the earl. Some look on in horror, revulsion and, on the odd occasion in a sadistic glow.
The most extreme example of the latter was one production when Regan removed Gloucester’s second eye by sucking it out and, in doing so, achieved an orgasm. This is perhaps not the most extreme reaction imaginable, but certainly it takes the award for me.
All of which makes me ask what I see in this play? The answer must be that is only part – a gruellingly brutal part – of a broader scope of the play. A number of productions have used this to questionable effect: the lights go from dim to harsh light; the black backdrop turns to white. Whatever is chosen is underlying the dramatic, the blind Gloucester and the now mad Lear have entered into a stark new reality. They have moved from flattery and imagined lives to what cannot be avoided. They no longer see things in part, but as they are, dim mirror or no.
For both the king and Gloucester the full realisation of love is closely followed by death. Maybe that is what we cannot – or do not? – want to see.
We live in a culture in which we are led to believe that our opinions matter. Or, at least, that we have a right to tell others what we think.
The former is reflected in the seemingly inevitable survey that follows a visit to a restaurant, cottage, hospital or theatre. Some of these surveys to which I am invited to respond ask if I am extremely/no adverb/neither-nor/no adverb on the other side/extremely are used for all sorts of purposes – promotion, publicity or plain self-aggrandisement.
The responses, like our opinions, vary from the worthy – hence the enshrined role of critics in mainstream media – to the naff – a list too long even to start scratching a beginning here.
This could be extended to include mystery reviewers. These exist, not just on TripAdvisor, but a whole host of official, semi-official and silly sites that embrace the professional, the informed amateur, even the maddened troll.
It is not usually the point of this blog to review productions. Elements of performances are inevitably going to be mentioned and assessed, but the personal pursuit of collecting productions King Lear has moved somewhat from a hobby to a lifework.
I was delighted to have been advised by a member of the Box Office staff at Chichester Festival Theatre to keep an eye out on their website after I failed to get a ticket to a production of the play, with Sir Ian McKellen as the abdicating monarch.
I did as instructed and so found myself picking up the single available seat on a Friday night in the front row of the near 300 seat theatre, just by one of the entrances. It was visceral, wet and wonderful. Sometimes all at once.
Before the show began I fell into conversation with a man in the seat next to me. He has a passion for the theatre, telling me he goes to performances three or four times a week. He mentioned his Lear-going and we compared notes. I had seen two more than he had last year, but that was not the point. We both relished, for reasons we shared and withheld, the experience of ‘being there’.
At the football I sit behind a couple of Daves whose hobby is groundhopping. For the uninitiated this involves going to football grounds with a crowd, for a game or even when they are empty. Sounds mad? Google it.
But theatregoing could likewise be seen as odd as groundhopping. I know of people who time their annual holidays so they can travel round the world to see productions of the The Ring Cycle. They feel no shame about it. Why should they?
It is personal, playful, maybe even potty. After all, I flew to Australia to see Geoffrey Rush in King Lear in my native Sydney for my sixtieth birthday. I asked nobody what they thought of that.
But Chichester did send me a survey, which I duly answered. There was, however, one query that drew me up short. It was question 3, which went ‘Thinking about King Lear please rate the following aspects of your visit (please tick one box for each statement)’. It canvassed my opinion about various aspects of the show, including what I thought of ‘the writing/quality of the script’.
I have spent some years seeking to understand and unravel my relationship with this masterpiece. Though not all would agree that, as Ian McDiarmid said when he performed in a radio version for BBC’s Radio Three, ‘Many people talk about it as the greatest play yet written’. The Guardian critic, Michael Billington, nearly always expresses reservations about it, as he did in his review of McKellen’s second thrust at the part. ‘I still find much of the play puzzling: there seems no logical reason why everyone should converge on Gloucester’s castle, or why Edgar should not reveal his identity to his father.'
I assume Billington was not sent a survey. The Chichester-generated questionnaire is obviously meant to canvass reaction to all plays, old and new, with a few changes to the lead-in to questions. Still, I could not resist saying how much I appreciated the opportunity to express my opinion on Shakespeare’s writing to see if it was Excellent/Good/Neither good nor poor/Poor/Very Poor.
I could rate my experience of Evensong in the cathedral, my meal in the bistro, the hotel I stayed in, my fry up in the only workers’ café in town, even my train trips on Southern trains.
But who cares? My opinion will hardly mar my fortunes.
There is no shortage of advice to would-be performers and those around them: never perform with children or animals and don’t put your daughter on the stage are just two. There should also be a general health warning – or maybe several - about working outdoors.
It takes a special kind of actor to be heard comfortably in an open air venue. Some mistake the skill of projection with shouting which, to be honest, is as tiring for the spectator as the person ‘on stage’.
There are myriad other threats that can disrupt a performance just because of the locale. I once saw peacock steal the show at Holland Park when a poor soprano was trying to put over her big aria. The bird had a bigger voice and more spectacular frock. A production of a Beckett play outside the Barbican Centre in London had two tramps vying with the antics of a coot doing the aquatic equivalent of strutting on a pond behind them.
Mind you, being in a theatre is no guarantee that wildlife will not find their way in. I once witnessed a possum completely upstage a performance of a Feydeau farce by defecating and urinating from the lighting rig. I heard of a similar hijacking of Jack Hibberd’s A Toast to Melba when a rat stopped atop a scenery flat to take in the action. He so successfully pulled focus that the humans were hardly mentioned during the interval. King Lear With Sheep made a virtue of the beastly invasion – the actor was never really meant to have a chance.
But let us go outside again. What about the elements? No-one is really in control of them. Two productions of King Lear within five days brought different clashes with the weather.
An earlier start in the garden at St John’s College, Cambridge might have allowed cast and audience all to go home undamp. It was odd that the king, Kent, the Fool and Edgar in the guise of poor Tom remained bone dry during the storm scenes.
When Gloucester arrived at Dover, things took a turn for the worse. A light rain began to fall and, with varying intensity, kept up until the proverbial curtain fell. Not one audience member abandoned the show, which was an act of solidarity with the increasingly sodden actors. Sadly, the poignancy of the closing scene was undercut: people hung in there under umbrellas, but the cast were up against it without protection.
The wooden O that is Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is both charming and disarming. The Lord Chamberlain’s - later the King's, - Men had plenty to deal with from the pit, now a rather attentive and sedate lot, and the racket that attended nearby bear baiting on the banks of the Thames. But they would certainly have been thrown by what now leaks in from above. There are the pigeons, of course, which one assumes visited performances in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Overflying aircraft can challenge even the best trained voice and the inevitable helicopter which seems to hover just over the theatre wins every time.
But my visit, four days after a soggy departure from Cambridge, contended with another seasonal aspect. The sun shone brightly and bare arms, a foolish virgin’s mistake in not bringing sun block, had to be covered with a light jumper. Slight discomfort was better than burning. I had sunglasses to hand and ushers gave out paper caps to the audience while actors went about their business on stage.
These are relatively minor inconveniences. Actors have the burden of the play on top of all that, and in both cases they rose to the challenge. No wonder so much advice is offered them. They must have many answers to Kent’s question that opens Act III, ‘Who’s there, besides foul weather?’
Jesus advised his followers not to broadcast their disciplines of fasting. Indeed he even suggested a kind of subterfuge should be used to avoid detection – ‘when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret’. (Matthew 6:16-18) Despite this, many declare their intent to give up various activities, foods and substances, for Lent. One of the more common – for the adult, at least – is alcohol.
While pondering a glass (half-full or half-empty, and the contents of which, is not important) it occurred to me that there is a liquid reading of King Lear which can join other suggested takes on the play.
Lear’s ebullient behaviour in Act One is arguably symptomatic of a person who has lost the social sense of inhibition because he has had a few drinks. Indeed, his need of flattery in the misguided test of his daughters’ ‘love’ could also be argued to a lubricated crossing of social boundaries: an encouragement to make public the kind of emotions Cordelia imagines to be part of the private realm.
As the scene continues his pre-entrance imbibing takes hold and Lear erupts into anger, another stage in the decline of an individual linked to an increase of the drunk drug. And the rest of the play can follow the march of the six stages of intoxication.
Lear is unreasonable in his dispute with his eldest daughter– at least it can be played so, as it was in the 2010-11 Donmar Warehouse production of the play, with Derek Jacobi as the king. One felt enormous sympathy for Gina McKee’s Goneril, when she complained,
By day and night he wrongs me. Every hour
He flashes into one gross crime or other
That sets us all at odds. I’ll not endure it.
By the time Lear, the Fool and Kent make it to the heath, only to be joined by Edgar as Mad Tom, he is clearly out of control. Indeed, some of his antics during the trial of his invisible daughters could qualify for a manifestation of delirium tremens. These, as the medical sites will inform the casual reader, are an indication of withdrawal from overuse of alcohol.
Lear’s road to recovery is, of course, complicated by ‘events, dear boy, events’. With a battle imminent the Doctor brings a now booze-free monarch back into circulation who shows a new awareness himself :
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less,
And to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you and know this man,
Yet I am doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night.
The diagnosis is confirmed by the Doctor, though he tempers his advice with caution:
Be comforted, good madam. The great rage,
You see, is killed in him, and yet it is danger
To make him even o’er the time he has lost.
Desire him to go in. Trouble him no more
Till further settling.
Anyone who has pushed the alcohol envelope will recognise the remorse and regret, the need to apologise, if they are not affected by a loss of memory. And Lear displays elements of the eighth, ninth and tenth steps of Alcoholics Anonymous ‘s twelve stage programme.
There is a bitter irony in King Lear’s end. The ultimate destination of alcohol abuse is death. (NIDA students were expected to trace the arc from first drink to coma or decease in a long living essay for the first year class mysteriously called Improvisation before the terror-inducing Margaret Barr.)
The man who abandoned fairness when he acted to split Cordelia’s already determined allocation of land among her siblings dies with her in his arms. It is a death that can leave not a dry eye in the house. It is also a conclusion that, on more than one occasion, I have heard a patron say, ‘After that I think I need a stiff drink.’
Identity is a funny thing - often defined, sometimes illusory.
Yet it can work for theatre companies in both directions. A 'name' can make a play sell before even the concept has been agreed, let alone the full casting or first rehearsal. I spent three hours in a holding queue to get tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet, only to get the last tickets in the gods. It was worth it.
Sir Ian McKellen is putting on the crown in King Lear again. This too sold out on the first day of release of tickets to the wider public. No surprise there, as his RSC performance of the monarch, with its opening capturing the sense of the divine patriarch, was magisterial.
So it was sad that, for me at least, I was too late to the keyboard. The Chichester Festival Theatre has no system for a waiting list, so it is a chance thing - watch for returns if and when they come up on their website and swoop. Good luck with that one.
The season does not open until September. The Globe Theatre in London has a season that runs over part of the performances in Chicester. At the time of writing no actor has been announced as taking the part of Lear. The box office's advice is the same as the that emanating from Sussex - watch the website.
Still, a bird in the hand etc. So guess which production I have a ticket for?
Love is blind, so we are told, but are theatregoers? The answer would seem to be yes and no, or dependent on who wants to do what.
There has been a welcome rise in ‘blind casting’ in plays though, on occasion, it may seem a little taxing on the suspension of disbelief – can people really imagine that those on stage actually mistake identical twins when one is male and the other female? Or one black and the other white? Basic biology would suggest that neither is possible. They may be twins, but they sure aren’t interchangeable.
Blind casting is growing in popularity, but it only goes so far – as far as I know all black casts are still the norm for A Raisin In the Sun or Porgy and Bess. This, of course, may justified as a proper revolt over the dubious practice of ‘blacking up’ in the theatre, perhaps most famously and commonly for Othello. But could it cut both ways? Would a white man be cast to play Martin Luther King?
There is also, to revert to my first twins, gender neutrality. Men have routinely taken women’s roles in Shakespeare, often justified on the grounds of ‘authenticity’ – the theatrical equivalent of period orchestras using ‘original instruments’. I have only witnessed one production where the mooted doubling of Cordelia and The Fool was played – the hot pants on the latter, like it or not, ensured it was a very feminine court jester.
Women, though, would miss all the big roles if they were cast by natural selection. This has been addressed – or redressed? - by a number of all female productions to give a kind of balance to the all male ones that pop up from time. A season at the Donmar Warehouse seeks to do just this. But what of the big roles - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear?
Readers of this blog will not be surprised at my interest who gets to play in the mad sovereign.
Two recent productions have been mounted with women as Lear – one definitely as a queen, her royalty enshrined in the play’s title; the other with Glenda Jackson as the monarch who divides her coronet, only later to be crowned with flowers.
It is not my practice to review productions on this blog. My aim is more ruminantary.
The playwright Ronald Harwood, whose play The Dresser, happened to have a West End run about the same time as these two productions of King Lear. The action unfolds place while the failing Sir, at the head of a depleted and second rate cast, is mounting a production of the tragedy in the war torn provinces. Harwood has declared a woman must not play the lead in his play and has reportedly ensured this in his will. And he said more. On the classical piece involved in his drama, Harwood said, ‘A woman as King Lear? It is an insult to the playwright.’
Neither Ursula Mohan (Queen Lear) in a fringe venue nor Glenda Jackson, definitely every inch a king in a packed Old Vic, was insulting, In fact, each of them provided some telling and interesting aspects to the role, even if the productions were variable and at times tricksy. Yes, even with vastly different budgets the highs and lows of productions can thrill or irk.
A woman invoking sterility on her daughter, as the Queen does, seems even more chilling than a father doing so. And a woman being a king seems no big deal when all on stage carry the weight of relationships. Deference is all.
Is it blind or universal? Perhaps both? Or neither? As I said, it depends on who wants to do what. And what the actors do in response to the royal personage.
A couple of years ago I saw a friend of mine played Henry IV on stage at the Sydney Opera House. We had been at acting school together in the 1980s, where we both strutted and strained as students. He has had a successful career in acting, even if he has had to drive cabs from time to time. I have never driven a taxi, but my last foray on the professional stage was over twenty years ago, and some might say that is not long enough in the past.
My friend, David Whitney, said ‘It’s great being a king. You don’t have to do anything. You walk on stage and people do everything for you. If only we knew this thirty years ago.’
David may one day play King Lear. I will, of course, only be his Fool in life. I hope to be in the audience to see it. I expect it will be a very manly event. But then, perhaps, friendship is blind.
The mad (angry at this stage, rather than the later insane) King Lear rants at the storm with:
Kevin Scully has been 'collecting' King Lears since the 1970s.
He shares his thoughts of what it is like to seek entertainment where one old man goes mad and another has his eyes plucked out.
All content © Kevin Scully
Header image: King Lear and Cordelia by Edward Matthew Ward; Photo credit: sofi01 / Foter / CC BY-NC