Phil Willmott’s idea of casting a female Lear is a bold one, which works well on some levels. It confronts the maternal vacuum in Shakespeare’s play and by giving Cordelia, Regan and Goneril a mother, it addresses the king’s conflicts with his feminine side. In writing The Absent Mother in King Lear Coppélia Kahn discusses the void precipitated by the relationship between the eponymous ruler and his daughters whilst Janet Adelman, in Suffocating Mothers in King Lear, concerns herself with the man’s female traits, facets of himself he constantly tries to suppress. Watching Ursula Mohan appear as Lear foregrounds these debates and gives the tragedy a fresh interpretation.
Hearing such lines as thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter spoken by a woman, whose youngest daughter is not prepared to lie about her feelings for her mother, makes the words appear as if spoken from the heart, and not from the mouth of a vain old man who needs to be flattered and reassured. Similarly references to tears as women’s weapons gives them a new significance and by calling his sorrow hysterical, it is relocated in a feminine world.
The production opens at a smart family gathering, everybody dressed in cocktail wear and Cordelia tickling the keys of a piano. Mother and daughters appear to share a close relationship and are happy to pose for selfies until the happiness is abruptly shattered by the youngest sister’s refusal to outdo her siblings in her protestations of filial love.
The Union Theatre’s staging also removes the majority of the audience seats, transforming the play to a promenade performance. Initially we feel as if we are also guests at the soirée and during this and subsequent scenes are encouraged to walk around the acting arena, sometimes dodging the actors, and at other times relocating so that we can gain a better view of the cast members. It worked well when audience members were directly addressed by characters in the play, and Rikki Lawton’s Edmund improvised perfectly when a viewer got in his way. However the scene in Mad Tom’s hovel was difficult both to see and to hear.
Given the warmth of the theatre the ambulation began to become rather tiring and was also a detraction from concentrating on the show. Using one of the few seats often meant that sightlines were blocked, but standing and moving around for about 50 minutes at a time (the length of each of the first two acts) was hard work. The final act permitted us all to sit down, either around the room, or at a large table, originally designated for a Cabinet Meeting, and upon which most of the action took place.
In addition to the innovations of a female Lear and a promenade performance, Willmott introduces other unnecessary concepts to the play. Why does an aristocratic Goneril (Claire Jeater) need to do her own housework, complete with rubber gloves and an aerosol of Mr Muscle? Was it really necessary to show characters sniffing cocaine and injecting other drugs? Why does Lear in her madness have to push a supermarket trolley? The same trope was used by Ophelia in a recent NT production of Hamlet. Does this spell out that the character is off their trolley? What is the point of dressing The Fool in scrubs, as if he is a nurse or doctor? Does this suggest that Lear is already ill?
I also think that some of the characters could have been given more power in their speech and actions. King Lear is about division of a kingdom and civil war. The protagonists don’t demonstrate enough forcefulness and anger especially in the interaction between Goneril and Albany when he accuses the sisters of being Tigers, not daughters. Then again my reactions could have been because I was tired of standing and walking around, and had difficulty concentrating fully on the action.
Equilibrium is restored at the production’s end when mother and daughter are reunited. I could well believe that Lear does not descend into, through and out of madness. To me she appeared as an old, tired woman battling with dementia. It is a disease that comes and goes, and does not manifest itself at all times; experience with my own mother demonstrates that it can result in personality changes and starting arguments for no plausible reason.
What appeared to be an interesting concept was spoiled by trying to include too many other ideas. A fully seated production would have been a starting point, whilst permitting a few audience members to remain on foot if they choose. Having most of the spectators standing means that some of them will always be in the way of others.