This could be the biggest Lear year yet. Plans are in place for four interpretations of the downfall of the monarch and the mayhem it creates. In London there is one scheduled for March by Malachite Theatre with John McEnery as Lear. Outside the capital before that is Brian Blessed with the Guildford Shakespeare Company; in the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames, the Northern Broadsides are travelling south with Barrie Rutter as Lear. All this before Geoffrey Rush in Sydney. But you will know about that already! Tickets for all but the closest one - the Malachites at St Leonard's Shoreditch - have been bought.
Some things need no commentary. They commend themselves. So to this performance.
So much of my assessment of theatre (and more) is naturally retrospective - even to the extent of what I have missed. But I am very excited to say that, where the future meets the present, I have tickets to see Geoffrey Rush in King Lear in Sydney. It coincides with my 60th birthday – if God allows me to reach it – when I can have a bit of a do in the city of my birth.
I saw Rush, on his return from Ecole Jacques Lecoq in 1978, play The Fool in Sydney, with Warren Mitchell as Lear. The production was mounted by the Queensland Theatre Company – Rush was raised in Brisbane – and toured to the Seymour Centre. It is one of the best productions I have seen.
Another lucky coincidence will be to see The Popular Mechanicals in Adelaide on the same trip. I still laugh when I recall the first performance of this work in Sydney at the Belvoir Street Theatre. Rush directed the original and will do so for the new Adelaide version.
I also happened to see him in a production of Pal Joey in Adelaide five years before the original Mechanicals. His dancing partner in that show was a beautiful woman, Adey Grummet, whom I met at after a performance at a theatre do. We could not see too much into the future then – we still can’t. We have been married for nearly 30 years and have lived in the United Kingdom since 1988.
Clairvoyance notwithstanding, I have my tickets for the Sydney Theatre Company Lear – thanks to a friend - even though I cannot book any flights as yet. Let's hope I lose neither my wits nor eyes before then.
In Dylanland, where I am a regular traveller, there are two kinds of tourists: the Bobcat and the Dylanologist. They can be typified by sustaining the travel analogy: the former are backpackers, while the latter stay in high class hotels. While they are both interested in the same artist, it is for different reasons. The Bobcat is perhaps most exemplified in The Bob Dylan Scrapbook, which purports to be a ‘highly collectable illustrated biography of Dylan's life during the 1950s and 60s’. It is full of reproductions of programmes, even ticket stubs, for the reader to make believe they have collected such material themselves.
I vacillate between these two poles – the high and low of art – in my seeking after King Lear. In the past year two have got away, and it pains me to think of what might have been. The first was playing at the Globe Theatre in London on my return last year from Australia, where I had been researching and writing Three Angry Men, a spiritual memoir of my father who wrote under the name of John Dawes. The production made a return to London via Oxford before heading off to the United States. It has a number of unusual aspects, not the least being a cast of eight is called on to portray all the characters.
The picture of Joseph Marcell as Lear in his pastoral crown is enough to make me want to go back and rearrange my diary. I simply was not aware of it while I was pondering rewrites on the project I was focussing on. It would be tedious to relate the reasons for missing its revival. Suffice to say the diary won again. It did not allow it.
The second production promised another, dare I say unique, view on the king who loses all in the pursuit of flattering his ego. It was called King Lear With Sheep. I learned of this epic on a walk to Alfriston in Sussex, where I saw a poster for the production in Jevington Barn in the wonderful Much Ado Books.
The concept alone is compelling enough: one actor playing a director seeking to control an unruly cast of sheep. It has had two outings, one in Lewisham in London, and the other in Sussex for two nights in August. Lucie Elven also provided insights into the process..
I learned of both productions after I had missed them. That may be a personal sadness but both, I am sure, would have given me some insight into the seemingly inexhaustible depths of King Lear. The sheep would probably have made me laugh. My mother, Norma Scully, was a grazier. The family property, Enmore, is full of evocative memories for the Scullys and Munros for a range of reasons.
I am sorry to have missed these two performances. Perhaps I dwell in two parts of Dylanland and Learplace. I am already hankering for a production in a woolshed near Beanbri, with a cast of Australian Merinos. I wonder if their accents are up to Shakespeare?
If one were casting for the Church of England Repertory Company, John Pridmore would be an obvious Fool. This bearded bard and barb has kept many entertained with his mordant musings in person and in his occasional diaries in the Church Times, some of which, in an edited form, made it into a delightful book, The Inner City of God.
One glancing comment he made was about what some parts of the church call Worship Songs. He garnered some vitriol and outcry when he acutely described them as ‘drivel’. Lovers of this kind of church music were suitably outraged, responding in the Letters page.
In John’s most recent diary piece, he confessed a love of King Lear. He wrote of queuing for day seats at the National Theatre, to be rewarded with a front row view to see Simon Russell Beale in ‘as tremendous a performance as Warren Mitchell’s, years ago, at the Hackney Empire’. (It was a performance I missed; though I did see Mitchell’s earlier essay at the role in a Queensland Theatre Company production in Sydney 17 years earlier.)
In Pridmore’s diary piece he says, ‘Long ago I taught Lear at an international school in Tanzania. Most of the class - and a different nation was represented at each desk – had never read a Shakespeare play before, and, for some, this was the very first English literary text that they had looked at. But the old wizard had his way. Shakespeare’s “rough magic” worked, and all were swiftly under his spell.
‘The theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn recently claimed that Shakespeare is “one hundred times more relevant today than the Bible”. There are bits of the Bible of which that claim is clearly true – the Levitical ban on eating bats, and Paul’s weird views on women, for example.
‘But Sir Trevor overstates his case. Both Lear and the story of Jesus are Passion narratives. Both explore what it takes for us to live for each other. Both point to the possibility of redemption. Neither story is privileged over the other; for both are luminous with the truth at the heart of things.’
John has also written an address, which was planned for a public event in London. I don’t know if it was ever delivered. In it, he argues that the Church is more effective when it works ‘outside’ – and in this he looks at Lear on the heath and beyond – rather than ‘inside’ – those court structures, which crumble under the King’s daft plan to cut up his kingdom in response to a public love show.
Pridmore is now retired. Thank God he still speaks and writes in his still active Fool-like manner.
Lent, like much of the Christian faith, is a joyful burden. For many of my generation and background, the twin characters of Give Up and Take Up give a gentle haunting to the approach of the penitential season.
Some people - certainly those among the marketing departments of publishers - believe reading a book is how you placate Take Up. The list of books in the Church Times – perhaps one of the few journals that give over large tracts of review space to such material – appears to get longer each year. The Lent book can be a useful discipline for the individual and group alike.
My first book, Sensing The Passion, was explicitly subtitled for this market. Two others were also pitched in that direction, albeit through the time of release rather than anything on the cover.
Some years I ago I approached the task of Lenten reading with some heightened trepidation. I was, I suppose, Lent-booked-out. I had also spent a sabbatical researching and writing a book exploring parallels between the theatre and church services.
So it was that my Lenten reading took a turn. I chose two books – Peter Hall’s Shakespeare’s Advice To the Players and Playing Lear by Oliver Ford Davies. They were just what I needed. They challenged, enthused and brought me to question myself and many assumptions I had made – something any good Lent book will do.
Lent is a season when we focus on our relationship with God by trying to learn more about His grace and our selves. It is a journey that involves recognising the difference between the two. It is an adventure that seeks its expression.
It was the tangential nature of the reading that could allow me to make connections where I would normally seek to build barriers. It can involve a searing search for honesty in one’s circumstances, person or the language we use to explore them.
In his book, Oliver Ford Davies wrote, ‘I said that by the time I came to the run-throughs I thought I knew who I was, that I’d found a centre to my Lear. That feeling I never lost, and I think the key to it was language. I couldn’t really know what it was to be eighty plus, to have been a king most of my life, or to feel I was losing my wits. All that was an imaginative leap. But I did come to think that I owned the words I spoke. As Peggy Ashcroft said, ‘You can appreciate a line, but it’s no good thinking you know how to say it until you’ve found the character.’ But when you have found the character you then need the language. The two are complementary, vital partners. It’s not enough to be thinking or feeling extreme, language and action are the only ways you can express them. ‘
Perhaps that is what we are seeking in Lent, whether we read a book or not.
Laurence Olivier in On Acting wrote, ‘The third spear carrier on the left should believe that the play is all about the third spear carrier on the left. I’ve always believed that.’ In Sam Mendes’s production at the National Theatre in London up to 30 actors have a chance to embody the advice from the founding father of the auditorium that bears his name. Outside of film productions of the play, I have never seen so many bodies on stage dressing the set. And that is what they do. In a number of scenes they stand on the edge of the stage’s drum revolve, clicking to attention and at ease when the King arrives and leaves, but doing little more than informing the audience of the power of regency.
Simon Russell Beale is a powerful Lear, and Mendes’s production revolves on the tensions of power. In a Sunday Times interview, Mendes points to the political chaos Cordelia unleashes in her refusal to play the game of public flattery. ‘I think the key to the play is, if you can create an environment where, when Cordelia says “Nothing”, she is not only beginning the process that destroys a family, but beginning to destroy a nation and start a war, the play operates on all levels.’
This production certainly uses many levels, by virtue of the drum revolve machinery, which coincidentally was the focus of the Guardian’s obituary of its designer, Richard Brett, which appeared in the week the play opened. The sheer size of the cast and Mendes’s vision point in the direction of ambitions of the rising and the falling.
For all that, the production did not ‘grab’ me. A friend asked if it were because I had seen too many productions: three on stage in the past six months. Still, there has been much in it to discuss. Not the least being if each of those who made up the supernumerary cast had followed Olivier’s advice: ‘If the character is nameless, the actor should give himself a name. He should give himself a family, a background, a past. Where was he born, what did he have for breakfast?’ After more imaginative tasks, he says, ‘If the actor brings on with him a true belief in himself, we should be able to look at him at any moment during the action and see a complete three-dimensional figure and not a cardboard cut-out. To transport an audience, they must see life and not paste.’
There is plenty of life in Simon Russell Beale’s Lear. How much chance the others get to live is, I suppose, up to them.
The Fool is one of the most beguiling – and difficult to play – characters in Shakespeare. His mixture of wit, mordancy and confrontationalism can present a performer and an audience with many challenges. I have, in my ‘collecting’, seen a range of approaches and interpretations – cheeky chappie, sad sack, frenetic avoider, in your face confronter – to name just four of them.
Assessing this range is likewise daunting. Whose decision to go one way over another can be held responsible: the actor? the director? the designer? The most successful will always be when the approaches of all three gel. The least will be when one has held out over another.
Some memorable performances occur to me: Geoffrey Rush, freshly returned from Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, in a simple and stark production of the Queensland Theatre Company with Warren Mitchell as the King; Emma Thompson in a facial makeup that looked like a Miro design, with a long leg, in what seemed to be another play from everyone else on stage; Sylvester McCoy who plumbed the depths of unhappiness in the role.
For the vast range on offer, I have never seen the possible doubling of the Fool with Cordelia: both are reported, depending on your take on Lear’s line in the final scene of the play, to have been hanged. (Discussions on this may lead to another blog entry…)
A number of the Fools have even managed to get laughs. Some use all sorts of tricks. Others just make the lines work. A few rely on gestures to magnify the text. Some, regrettably, look like Testiculo of Coarse Acting fame, ensuring Michael Green’s dictum is observed - that there should be more laughter on stage than in the audience.
It is, as I say, a hard task. I am just glad that I have never been asked to play it. Give me Lear any day.
Some years back I, perhaps foolishly, commissioned a series of sermons during Lent on plays by Shakespeare. One week was given over to King Lear. Thus spake (slightly edited for the web) the Rector of Bethnal Green:
And my poor fool is hanged.—No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Oh, thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips.
Look there, look there.
I have wrestled with a text to begin this sermon today. Some of you will recall that my task is to reflect on the tragedy of King Lear and our Lenten discipline. I suppose I should give a health warning on this. King Lear is probably my favourite piece of literature. I scanned the very book I used for my final high school English exam in 1973 as I prepared for today. I looked at some of the notes I had taken and said to my wife, Adey, ‘You know, I must have had some great teachers. These notes about the parallel plots and how they echo the physical and metaphysical…’
Unlike many people I talk to, I was far from put off Shakespeare at school. Indeed, the opposite is true. My teachers were so caught up with it, so enthusiastic, so enraptured with Shakespeare, that I have developed a lifelong passion for his verse and drama. So nice to be able to say something positive about the Christian Brothers.
And, this play, King Lear, which was one of the set texts for what was the equivalent of my A levels (HSC for Australian readers), has become something of a life quest. I can almost bore for Britain on the king who gives away his kingdom to two of his daughters - even though he has already divided it into three - after the folly of getting his daughters to say publicly how much they love him. Things go wrong: he is cast out into the wild, lives with a dying Fool and two people pretending to be what they are not - a banished courtier and a duped son. With them he rants at the weather, goes mad, gets caught up in a war, meets his beloved wronged daughter again and, after he kills the man who murders her, he dies.
It sounds like a truly great night out, doesn’t it? And it is only three and a half hours long. That is, if you cut the complete script. This does not take in the parallel plot of Gloucester, the trusting but similarly duped nobleman who, for his trouble, has his eyes plucked out so his bastard son can get his hands on his dukedom, as well as both of the King’s daughters. A bad business, as one of the characters says. And I try to see it just about every time it is on the stage.
Why might I have chosen, from all the wonderful, mysterious and memorable lines of the play, to begin with the quote I did? In some ways, it is simple: they come near the end and they are not the most obvious ones we go for. Our faith, like our relationship to scripture and church services, is not all that different from much of the world we live in. We remember the bits that please us, or the bits that annoy us, while skipping over some real gems or pieces of old dross.
There is a moment buried in this final speech of Lear’s which, having had my attention brought to it by the actor, Oliver Ford Davies, in his wonderful book Playing Lear, points to the gentle, frail dignity of someone who has lost everything. ‘Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.’
He has carried in the corpse of his daughter. He has ascertained what he really already knew: that she is dead. Some around him still think he is just stark, staring mad and, with all the stress of having just killed a man – he is supposedly in his eighties –he has the gentleness to ask someone to undo his button. We assume the fixture is on his collar and he want to be able to breathe more easily. This being done, he says, quite politely, ‘Thank you, sir.’
The arc of Lent is one through some of the darker sides of life, to the realisation of the reality of humanity that terminates in death but is transfigured by the astonishing events of Easter. Jesus, dead on the cross, laid in the tomb for three days, rises from the dead and meets his followers and commissions them to tell others.
Sometimes the Church can be so busy going about telling people about the Good News that it rushes past them. Some of us have learned the script so well that we forget an important part of the process is actually attending. Lear’s last words, ‘Look there, look there’, are almost unbearably touching. Perhaps it is an order, or just an appeal for others to see what he sees. He is asking others to grasp what he has come to realise that his sins, ever before him, have come to this.
We could contrast that with the first words we hear from this king in the play. He enters, with some show of force. What does he say? ‘Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.’ At the beginning, ordering Gloucester, we see Lear as the agent of his own destruction. He orders with confidence.
He is so full of himself and his own plans he cannot imagine that they will not turn out the way he expects them to. At the end, he urges people to look at what they can really see, the tragic arc of events set in train by someone who did not show due respect to anyone else but himself. That’s folly.
How often can we grab at that eruption of self justification, spoken by the tormented king in Act Three, Scene Two: ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning.’ As we look at the play, we can see that this may not be so with Lear. But it is with Gloucester. The duke, who like Lear, begins with a cheery scene with a child who will betray him, gives shelter to the raving king, has his eyes plucked out and, in a failed attempt, sets out to kill himself. It is Gloucester who sums up the problem of evil:
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.
In Holy Week Christians follow the path of Jesus from the celebratory entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, to dining with his friends, to anguish and betrayal and a grisly death on what they call Good Friday. It is still one of the most important questions children ask: if it is so sad, so brutal, why do we insist on calling it good?
The Christian faith dares to say that the separation of God and humanity is over. They became one when Jesus was born and, in his life, death and resurrection, made light triumph over darkness, joy over grief and life over death. It does not always seem like that, and nor should it. The tragedy of King Lear is that, in many ways, he was the architect of his own downfall. Yet in this suffering, madness and chaos he gets to realise the power of love.
In her Revelations of Divine Love the 14th and 15th century anchorite Julian of Norwich gives an example of a view of God. She poses and answers some questions: ‘Wouldst thou wit thy Lord’s meaning in this thing? Wit it well: Love was his meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed he Thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? for Love… Thus was I learned that Love is our Lord’s meaning. ‘
Love is God’s answer to us. Love can hide, feel a long way away and, at times, not run too smoothly. But God has shown us a way in Jesus which, if we look to him rather than ourselves, as Lear did before he realised the power of love lost, we can rest in him. So, we like the dutiful Kent we can say:
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.
My master calls me; I must not say no.
To describe King Lear as moving verges on the asinine. Yet such an adjective seems inevitable when recalling the 2010 performance of Derek Jacobi at the Donmar Warehouse. The collective silence before the acclamation of the curtain call, attended by non-gender specific post-tragic weeping, wiping of eyes and sniffling, was human evidence that the fate of an impetuous monarch and his beguiled courtier who are betrayed by their progeny can touch our deeper emotions. It was the closest experience to a collective Aristotelian catharsis I have encountered.
There was one other element that stood out in Michael Grandage’s production. When Goneril complains to Regan of the increasingly alarming behaviour of their recently retired father and his riotous retinue in Act One, Scene Three – the subject of a discussion with her sister and the King later in the play – she engaged the sympathy of critics and audience alike. Both saw concern about the disturbing and errant ways of a parent, with fears that matters could only degenerate. They did and they do.
This was truly an evocation of mystic disintegration. Ripeness was all.
Image: Henning Kristiansen
I blame Stan Sinclair. He was my English teacher in high school. He was what the East End would call a character: chaotic, incisive, erratic and inspring.
One of the texts for English was King Lear. Since reading the play, and hearing a recording and watching the Peter Brook film with Paul Scofield as Lear, in Stan's class the foolish, mad king has become something of a fixture in my life.
This page will seek to chart some of the performances and the effects they have had on me.
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