King Lear*** (Old Vic)

Posted: November 13, 2016 in Theatre

king-lear“…and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not…” (King Lear, Act 4 Scene 5). Perhaps the play itself is offering an explanation as to why someone might follow a 25-year political career by taking on one of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles at this venue so steeped in history. Glenda Jackson, among the greatest of a golden generation of British female actors, opted not to compete with Judi, Maggie, Vanessa and the rest for the old lady roles, choosing to play the theatre of Westminster instead, and now she makes her return to the real stage in the most dramatic way possible.

Simon Russell Beale had barely passed his 50th Birthday when he played the 80-year-old King at the National Theatre not long ago, continuing the belief that the role is too onerous for older actors, but here we have a Lear who is actually 80 and, even more remarkable, if Jackson fails to convince, it has little to do with gender and more to do with disbelief that she is really that age. Her suppleness and the clarity of her unmistakeable voice seem little diminished from when I saw her play Cleopatra for the RSC in 1979. Her affinity with Shakespeare and her stage presence remain truly formidable. Director Deborah Warner makes just one concession in not requiring her to carry on Cordelia (Mortydd Clark).

Warner’s production is, to say the least, eccentric. She sets it in what appears to be a rehearsal room with no throne, just a line of blue plastic chairs waiting for the actors to do their read-through. Her overall vision for the play never becomes clear and, without this, many of her bizarre touches feel like pointless gimmicks, She gives us an Edmond (Simon Manyonda) who skips like a schoolgirl while plotting against his half brother and she projects act and scene numbers onto the plain set. Why? In common with other Shakespeare tragedies, King Lear has many implausibilities, not least of them the playwright’s assumption that madness is something that can be switched on and off, but Warner’s approach accentuates those problems rather than counters them.

That said, the risks that Warner takes in casting pay off handsomely. Few would have raised an eyebrow if those fine comedy actors Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks had been announced to appear as the Ugly Sisters in the Palladium’s Christman panto, but neither would be obvious choices for the sisters here. Of course, they were always going to be up to it, but Imrie’s Goneril, swanking in chic trouser suits, and Horrocks’ Regan, with peroxide hair and leather-clad like a vengeful Hell’s Angel, are a lot more than just that. At first, Harry Melling also seems an odd Edgar, writhing around like a demented, turbo-chaeged gremlin, but, when he switches off the madness and begins to reconcile with Gloucester (Karl Johnson), his blinded father, he gives the character dignity and becomes genuinely moving.

There will be sighs of relief at the Old Vic that this will not rank alongside disasters with Shakespeare in modern times. There is a lot here that is misguided, but nothing that is incompetent and it boasts a central performance that will become legendary. Not a great production of King Lear, but certainly an extraordinary one.

Performance date: 7 November 2016

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