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.