Posts Tagged ‘“King Lear”’

I was SO excited when I saw the combination: “Sam Mendes”, “Simon Russell Beale” and “King Lear” at the beginning of the year: excited enough to go right ahead and book tickets for four nights, in various combinations.
When the time came for the first visit (with Old Friend at Work and her husband) there had been a few early, snipey comments about how the production “Missed greatness by a whisper” (I think that particularly useless observation came from “The Sunday Times”) and so on, but I was still in a state of breathless over-excitement by the time we walked into The Olivier Theatre at The National.
The stage looked good: huge moon suspended over a blank set, with modern, stark props. Good. This was going to be good, I thought.
Well, it was, pretty much. Simon Russell Beale is (I think rightly) lauded as the best Shakespearean actor that we have, and so his Lear was never going to be a non-event. Every one of the four times I saw it, I was in floods of tears (embarrassing but true) for the first time each night at precisely the same point: “Oh let me not be mad. Not mad.” Whether this was a Pavlovian conditioning after the first couple of times, I don’t know – but I still think it’s a pretty strong endorsement of the man’s talent to be able to do that to a forty-three year-old father of three. It’s not the best I’ve ever seen – because Ian Holm is the best I have ever seen, and I am pretty confident that I will never see a better – but it was certainly a major piece of work.
Other good things were Edmund and Edgar: both excellent; and Gloucester and Kent – also terrific. There was a brilliant decision to have – spoiler alert – Lear murder The Fool in his madness in the joint stool scene, exhausted and maddened and apparently forgetting what he had done until the end of the play; and there were any other smart line readings and ideas that kept the production fizzing along. Now and then, there were moments that only The National Theatre could do: the huge number of extras who made up Lear’s army and retinue, dwindling as the play progressed, really did seem, at the start of the play to number one hundred. The Leninesque statue that dominated the courtyard outside Goneril’s home was sturdy enough to have a man chained to it and for it to seem as though it was an utterly immoveable thing. The rushes that encircled the back of the stage, revealed as Act Five began were dense and high – an effective screen for soldiers and medical staff to trample through.
On the downside, nearly every scene involving the daughters was pretty bad. The opening scene, from which everything flows and which needs to make absolute sense, was performed at such a lick that almost everything was missed – even Russell Beale was gabbling away and swallowing words. It became pretty obvious that some strange choices in characterisation had been made, and there was some spectacularly over-the-top acting from Anna Maxwell Martin, who is normally excellent. The “What need one?” moment that precedes “Oh reason not the need.” (to my mind, one of the cruellest things in that very cruel play) was positively chucked away – so there were a couple of disappointments there. One of the benefits of seeing it a number of times, with a number of different people was that on one occasion Anna Maxwell Martin’s understudy went on for her – and actually I preferred it. I can’t remember her name, but (even though she was obviously “following” Maxwell Martin’s interpretation) she was calmer and more restrained in her characterisation than her more famous predecessor.
I’m glad I saw it as often as I did. It’s never going to be a bad idea to watch people of that calibre perform “King Lear” – but what I’m most excited about (given that Simon Russell Beale is in his early 50s) is the anticipation of his next Lear.

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I’d seen this before, in New York, at what should have been about a third of the way into its run, and turned out to be almost the final day of its run: a victim of negative publicity, I presume (rather than poor notices – as they were pretty uniformly excellent).
I went back for the first of my three further London visits (I know…but I am obsessed) with Creator Rebel Planner and Tall Planner in Whom I Am Well Pleased; then on my own; then, finally with Sardonic and Sad-Eyed Muse.
It was when reading the programmme that I was reminded that it was some twenty years since the remarkable partnership between Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner began with “Electra”, in the same venue (The Barbican), if not the same precise theatre – it was on in The Pit and “The Testament of Mary” was in the main theatre.
I remember that earlier performance with absolute clarity: the only description that begins to describe it is “mind-blowing”. Fiona Shaw, in a rag of a dress, her hair cropped short looked like a great, doomed bird; and she gave a performance of such staggering power, revealing such raw grief, that I can remember the pain in my heart and chest as I watched it. Reading an interview with Warner and Shaw much later, about that production’s rehearsal process, I was struck by how Fiona Shaw said that at first she devised little bits of business: cigarettes to roll, cups of water to drink, paper with messages written on, and how these were secreted about the stage. Later in the process, Warner removed them – and she said that this was because Electra HAD no little comforts, no props: she had nothing. Shaw remembered feeling desolate without her supports, deserted and alone with nothing to act as a crutch in that nightly journey into such a deep, dark place – and then, clearly, she converted those feelings into a performance that almost singed one with its grief. People queued all night to get a ticket – and were happy to do so. It remains one of the best things I have ever seen in forty years.
I wonder if there is something to be said about an opposition in creative partnerships (especially in film and theatre) that fascinates me: Catholic and Protestant, with their very different aesthetics working to create a brilliantly rich result that benefits from the extravagance and the focused stillness of the latter? Shaw was raised a Catholic, Warner a Quaker – and there is (I think) something perfect about the extravagant red, purple and gold performer being directed by the still, contemplative director. It’s why (I think) Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese made such an interesting partnership – but I’m in danger of losing my thread.
Watching Fiona Shaw again, that thought about the “Electra” rehearsal process stayed with me, and I must confess to having wished that Warner had exercised her prerogative to remove a few of the props again. There can be a tendency (for my taste) with Fiona Shaw to illustrate every thought with props – and with an actor of her calibre it doesn’t need it. While the performance was absolutely magnificent (and I know that certain critics have referred to it as a “career best”), I felt that it was at its very, very best when she had nothing – and the grief, like Electra’s, took her whole body over.
There are obvious answers to this criticism: the play is as much about iconography as it’s about anything else – so the props have an absolute right to be there to illustrate that aspect of the text. Also, Mary is in a home (albeit a temporary one) and much of her day is filled by domestic routine, with its props and paraphernalia: so, once again, the props have an absolute right to be there. Let me say again: she was magnificent. Her grief, her anger, her confusion – all of these things were pitch perfect, and won her on every occasion a richly deserved standing ovation -so it’s petty to carp about “what might have been” (especially as my suspicion may well turn out to have been incorrect…). And yet…
It’s also greedy, after so great a glut of Fiona Shaw to be thinking “What next?” – but I can’t help myself (which is, I suppose, as good a definition of greed as any other…).
I have also seen Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes’ production of “King Lear” four times recently – and, after their great comic partnership in “London Assurance” I am left in even greater need to see them together in Shakespeare – specifically in “Antony and Cleopatra”. To my mind, there hasn’t been a production of that perfect play to match Judi Dench and Antony Hopkins at The National Theatre a good twenty five years ago – but I think those two actors could do it.
I’ll write about “King Lear” at length elsewhere – but “The Testament of Mary” is the best thing I have seen this year: more nuanced, more immediate, more emotional than it was in New York, and both Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw showed themselves once again to be absolute masters of their craft, and (to my mind) peerless.

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Saturday, 12th January 2007

No: it’s not the next volume of Jordan’s autobiography, it was a comment made in my very own Drawing Room last night by a very serious lady (60 years old at least) and it was a bit of a show-stopper.

It turns out that the great and celebrated actor, Sir Ian McKellen has got a simply enormous todger: a fact that came to light in the “Off, you lendings” moment, during the scenes on the heath in “King Lear”, which McKellen has had such a triumph in. Well: this American lady, who is a keen theatre-goer was able to talk of little else, referencing the relative heft of the theatrical knight against such other (high-art) touchpoints as the drawers of penises in the museums in Rome (where they deposit the stone cock ‘n’ balls that were lopped off Classical statues in more prudish eras) and it was felt by her that McKellen won. By quite a bit.

Struggling to get the conversation back onto a slightly less cock-led theme, proved a little difficult, as the rest of the company seemed keen to assess the likelihood that Sir Ian had been prosthetically assisted a la “Boogie Knights”, but Wife managed to weigh in with something that was just right: “Well, no wonder it’s the hot ticket of the season.”

We moved onto Fiona Shaw in “Happy Days”, recently at the Brooklyn Academy. Much safer, as the great actress is buried upto her neck in sand. And doesn’t have a cock.

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