Oh fool I shall go mad! Lear from the National

I had not been to a simultaneous cinema screening from the RSC or the National Theatre [UK]  before last night. I was rather excited by the idea. I got the feeling that it would not quite be like being at the theatre, but it was much more accessible to me living as I do on the West Coast of Ireland.

However, before I left the uk I was often massively disappointed with the productions I saw in these big companies because it did not matter how great the play was, how good the actors were purported to be, nor how much money was thrown at the production , I often came away frustrated and as if something was missing. Despite some good performances, a nice set or whatever , I felt I had somehow been conned. As I was an actor at the time, and though i had worked a lot , had not been employed in either of these companies, one might put it down to youthful frustration. Whilst I confess that played a part, the main thing was something quite different. A performance so often did not meet  my expectations.

But last night I thought, things must have changed, It is twenty years since I saw a play in London . It is King Lear, one of the greatest plays in the English language, Simon Russell Beale is playing him , whom I saw play a wonderful Falstaff in the recent Henry 4th films. I of course understood, having done quite a bit of film and tv as an actor  that some of the vocal work and general acting might be a little unbalanced as they were performing both for the camera and for a live audience, but that was ok.

The 60 or so people who gathered in the cinema in Galway were able to watch the audience members in London flicking through their programmes and chatting , and the wonderfully open presenter, Emma Freud introduced the play in London .

Sadly, all the problems I had had with the plays I had seen in London two decades ago had re- emerged within five minutes. The play was clear ( at first) but Beale’s rasping ranting delivery which sounded like he was wrecking his voice once he got angry, matched by an equally ranting Kent highlighted a core issue. No one appeared to be listening to each other and the pauses often had nothing in them at all. And when there is something in a pause you can feel it. The energy is moving between the performers. There were moments of connection in the play but mostly the actors did not appear to be working together. This problem could not be excused by the dual audiences of camera and live audience because i recently saw a wonderful production from Glyndebourne on television of Billy Budd, which knocked the acting of King Lear into a cocked hat.

Another key issue were a myriad of clumsy bits of business which looked like they were someone’s good idea ( possibly the director’s) but which should have been left in the rehearsal room when the actor lost heart. When Cornwall first confided in Edmund, he kissed him on the lips. This was never followed up or developed, it was one of many extraordinary choices which didn’t seem to mean anything and worse actually diluted the power of the play.

In the interval the actors gave a short ‘behind the scenes’ talk. As someone said afterwards, they never seem to really want to give too much away in these ‘smell of the greasepaint’ talks. If this is true , I wonder why. However they did illuminate one or two things which I thought explained things, more than they thought. I asked myself, ‘why did Lear have no real journey and appear to not be at Core the person he was at the beginning…Simon RB told us, that he had researched the possibility that Lear had some kind of degenerative illness, and whilst he did not follow all the disabilities this illness caused, he used this as a reference point. This was very clear in his performance, because for me at no point was Lear anything other than a sick man . This seemed to give him no real trajectory of awakening, because he simply got worse, and then suddenly with Cordelia’s help [and a dose of medication]  he was cured. This did not seem credible and was most certainly NOT cathartic. This ‘illness’ seemed to distort the trajectory of the entire play , and prevent Lear from having a transformational journey .Isn’t a plank of the play that Lear realises his humanity and grows into a more whole person? Isn’t it actually the only gleaming thing on the horizon, considering the horrors it contains?

in the interval film, the actress playing Regan remarked how Regan played the ‘daddy’s little girl’ card and how Lear completely fell for it so when she sides with Goneril he is devastated. For me this was something which could have created a phenomenal moment , but i did not see it. It felt like a good idea from too much intellectual tablework, that was not for me realised.

I could go on, but I won’t, because many people reading this will not have seen the production, and I do not want to make this into a rant. but I know this. i would prefer to see a great play played with no set, no costumes, with real truth amongst  players who may even be less trained,  who seek for what the play is telling them, rather than some slick and expensive piece that did not say much to me.   For me if the play is not transformational, everyone may as well stay home.

3 thoughts on “Oh fool I shall go mad! Lear from the National

  1. Tony Hegarty

    I was there too and totally agree. They had no sense of the poetry of the play…though I liked Tom Brooke as Edgar ..I only wished he had played the Fool. If it was set in some kind of “modern Britain in crisis” with the RAF flying overhead, then perhaps it is understanderble that Lear was full of “rant”. As an older person of 70 years I thought the play was ageist in the extreme.

  2. Ted Turton

    Hmmm, all very interesting, Max. I know what you mean about the “something missing” feeling from a West End production. It’s as if you’d be willing to fore go the slickness in favour of rawness. As for Russell Beale’s comment about Lear having an illness (like George the Fourth perhaps), I feel that this cuts across one of the very essences of the play. Surely life itself is a degenerative illness and Lear is experiencing for the first time the terror of reaching the point of total loss of power, and finds himself in the land of physical frailty, weakening mental agility and hello political wilderness. He falls into the trap (of his own hastening, it has to be said) where he fears he is a burden on society whereas one time he was (literally) a kingpin contributing to it. It’s the ageing person’s dilemma. Perhaps, Tony, the play is necessarily ageist! To my mind the physical catharsis Lear goes through during the storm is THE pivot acting on his balance of mind or “madness”. It is similar to Lieutenant Dan’s experience in Forest Gump (having lost both legs in Vietnam and along with them, the will to live) he rails at God to do His worst from the top of the shrimp boat’s mast he says, “Call this a STORM?” ……..Surely, its the all-consuming experience of going through such a terrifying storm that induces the resultant epiphany, to get to that position of acceptance – that we are all going to be frail and old, if we are not already (like Lt. Dan). It’s about acceptance, not forgiveness or even someone going mad. (It’s too late to forgive Cordelia anyway cos she’s dead when Lear reaches her.) Sorry, this is becoming a rant of my own! And another thing. Cordelia falls fowl of her father’s idea of protocol, pomp, ceremony and manners. It’s a generation thing. She thinks it’s all codswallop cos she knows he knows she loves him. My own father had an unshakeable sense of “duty” that I found unbearable when I was a teenager. It’s the same sort of thing – too young to appreciate the significance and too inexperienced to appreciate the tradition being represented. Young man during second world war clashes with young man in the liberated sixties. Before I write a book, finally, I feel that Kurosawa’s “Ran” makes more sense of the themes and has less flaws than Shakespear’s “King Lear”. However I still consider that Lear is a great play and, considering it is a role for an old man (not necessarily an old actor) paradoxically, it should be one of the most physical roles. I empathise with your comments, Max.

    1. maxhafler Post author

      Thanks ted . What comes over to me is how you explain the central conflict of the play which emphasises how universal it is. The problem is that directors are so desperate to make something more complex, when the simplicity is complex enough…if you get what I mean.


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