London theatre trip (4): William Shakespeare: King Lear, The Old Vic, London (Director: Deborah Warner)
By Sascha Krieger
„I think I know the trick of that voice“. Gloucester’s words will echo in many spectators‘ ears when they watch this production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. For 25 years, this voice was heard on a different stage. In 1992, Glenda Jackson ended her acting career to become a Labour member of parliament. Now, after many political battles fought, won and lost, the two-time Academy Award winner has returned to her first love. And how appropriate that it would be in King Lear: Firstly, like her character she cannot give up what and who she is. She has to go on, she has to, to paraphrase Beckett, try and fail and try again and fail better. Secondly, she has been a fierce fighter for female equality, a practical feminist on stage and screen as well as in politics. Playing a gender-bending Lear is a logical move, too. And thirdly, age: Lear is the personification of old age, discarded, underestimated, deemed useless. He goes mad – or pretends to – when he is no longer needed, his „madness“ being the final act of rebellion and self-assertion. Jackson is in her 80s, her frame seems frail but when she speaks, the sharpness in her voice, the acerbic wit, the relentless energy is still there. If anyone can take on this role of defiant old age, it’s her.
In the end, it’s all theatre. When the audience files in, stage hands are busy cleaning the stage, putting up portable white walls, trying out the video technology, lining up a row of blue plastic chairs. actors appear, chat with each other – it has the feel of a rehearsal, a first readthrough. The storm is as mix of video effects and actors visibly shaking plastic foil, when Lear’s camp sets off, wooden foldable tables and benches are packed up. It’s as if we’re witnessing Jackson’s getting back on stage, feeling her way around, trying things out as if for the first time. But it’s also about her sense that this is play-acting, that this is not „real“, not as real as politics although it might well be as much showmanship. The actors wear everyday clothes, underlining the rehearsal feel of it. They come on as actors and try on their roles as if wondering what they might find in them, where they will lead and whether they have anything to say to them – and us.
And yes, they do. The political sphere never seems far off. The treacherous daughters appear as more or less skilled politicians – Celias Imrie’s formidable power-conscious Goneril more so than Jane Horrocks‘ less assured Regan – and Jackson’s Lear herself displays all the subtle persuasion techniques of the experience power-wielder as well as a profound sense of being lost when the power is gone. Her madness is, among other things, a symptom of lost identity. She was the king, without the crown, there is little more than an empty shell. Which is where gender comes in. Shakespeare’s text is not altered, Lear is addressed as „king“ and „he“ which contrasts effectively with the seemingly frail, diminutive woman addressed as such. A woman playing the men’s game has to be more masculine than her rivals and can be much more easily discarded. So Jackson invests Lear with a toughness that borders on the ridiculous, an ambivalence not unknown to powerful women. It is no co-incidence that in the final scene the four bodies on stage are all female. They might be tolerated for a while in the power game but in the end, in this world, it’s the men that prevail.
Which takes us to age. The challenge with Lear is always the question who to focus on as the counterpoint to Lear: his scheming daughters as rivals in a political power struggle? The fool as agent of life’s absurdity (Rhys Ifans is quite entertaining but ultimately inconsequential in the role) opposed to Lear’s attempts at giving existence meaning? Or Edgar, the other outcast, the other honest victim, the younger alter ego almost of the ancient Lear. Director Deborah Warner goes for the latter and in Harry Melling – yes, Harry Potter’s dull bully cousin has become of prime and daring actor – she has found an opposite worthy of highlighting the circular nature of human existence. As the old suffer, so do the new, as the former lose the power game so are the young. Melling’s delivery is musical, at a considerably higher pitch than Jackson’s drier song. His idealism is – and sounds – almost otherworldly, his despair has a sad poetry to it that would sound a lot like the late Leonard Cohen’s were his voice a little deeper. He is less the play’s hope that its reminder that the vicious circle of existence is not broken by death – if we want it to end we must stand up to the Edmunds, the Gonerils, the Regans. And better yet, to the system that made them as they are clearly depicted as just pawns in a game they didn’t invent.
So, is all good? Not, of courts not. Yes, it is worth every cent watching Glenda Jackson go through the mood shifts of her character, be the politician, the angry egomaniac and the infinitely touching vulnerable lost human being. The problem is, Warner’s production is somewhat half-hearted. The theatrical setting, the reflection of playacting as a way to understand and handle reality and human existence gets lost at some point. And then, what’s left is little more than hollow role play stripped of meaning. The final act is sometimes painful to watch and way too long. Time management is off and so is the focus on characters: while some are finely rounded others seem almost abandoned. Morfydd Clark’s Cordelia is so boring and annoyingly assertive in her self-professed saintliness that the audience could be forgiven not being entirely unhappy about her downfall. Most male protagonists (with the notable exceptions of Edgar and Simon Manyonda’s Edmund) are rather one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts on a stage that falls a little short of being the world. But it’s Glenda Jackson’s stage and this might well be enough.