King Lear is perhaps the darkest tragedy written by Shakespeare. Its power lies in great emotions it stirs in audiences of all generations. The best stagings of the play I have seen were successful thanks to ensemble effort. Indeed to think that King Lear is mainly a vehicle to show acting craft by, usually, older celebrated actor is to ignore Shakespeare’s craft in creating a diverse group of extraordinary characters.
Deborah Warner’s King Lear with Glenda Jackson in the title role may be considered as such a vehicle. Jackson has not acted on stage for 25 years, since the start of her political career, and she is one of the British actresses who achieved it all, including two Oscars to boot. Playwright Ronald Harwood who has recently expressed his dismay at the current trend of gender-bent productions of Shakespeare should not have worried, Glenda Jackson transcends gender. She delivers King Lear, a man, with self-assured, crushing power. She is an obnoxious king, interested only in himself and his pursuits, with few redeeming features. Only towards the end of the performance the audience may feel sympathetic towards Lear’s plight as s/he descends into madness and sees through his folly to finally experience his greatest tragedy, the death of his beloved child Cordelia.
Unfortunately, this production is a show of soloists. While Glenda Jackson does not disappoint there is no ensemble that would support the weight of the performance which remains ultimately on her shoulders. My overarching impression is that Deborah Warner’s production is under-rehearsed because there is barely any emotional connection or engagement between the actors who often stand and stare with nothing to do or just deliver Shakespeare’s text in a declamatory fashion.
In this context the modern set dominated by massive moveable white panels and a lot (!) of black plastic (used only once in n inventive way in the fabulous storm scene) accompanied by a large projection screen at the back wall jars with the antiquarian delivery of Shakespeare’s poetry. When you first enter the auditorium the fourth wall is non-existent as we are shown the preparations for the performance (the cleaners clean the stage, the set manager runs around seemingly unprepared and actors walk around getting into the ‘roles’). But this idea is not taken any further and so seems out of place in the overall design concept.
It seems that Warner intended to transpose a traditional British approach to Shakespeare (full text, delivered with emphasis and minimal stage movement) into more European (German) aesthetic through the stage design but I am not really sure what she is trying to say with her concept of staging of King Lear.
It is a very uneven production but there are some memorable moments in it too: Rhys Ifan’s antics as the Fool, Kent’s (Sargon Yelda) metamorphosis into a streetwise Iranian Caius (engaging in a comedic routine not unlike Omid Djalili’s) and Poor Tom’s speeches delivered with lyrical lightness by Harry Melling.
I was unable to connect emotionally to a play which I find the most powerful tragedy I ever experienced when reading or watching it. Yet I left the theatre with undiminished belief that King Lear matters even on the day when I am not in love with the performance. Lear’s metaphoric address to blinded Gloucester “Get thee glass eyes, /And like a scurvy politician seem. To see the things thou dost not” sounded more poignant than ever as Boris Johnson sat in the auditorium, an example of a politician Lear refers to.