KING LEAR
Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1
Opened 22 May, 2001

Barry Kyle's production of King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe has given the play back to the people. Unfortunately, the people don't necessarily don't know what to do with it, and neither once this move has been made does Kyle. The production ends up being perfectly serviceable, but largely undistinguished except for a puzzling choice of tone.

King Lear is a tragedy. It's often disconcertingly easy to lose sight of this during Kyle's production. Among the lines which unexpectedly get laughs are Lear's "O, let me not be mad", Gloucester's "Alack, I have no eyes" and even, in the normally grim final movement, Edmund's reaction to the news of Goneril's and Regan's deaths. The action is integrated with the audience, so that Edmund's "bastardy" speech is begun halfway up a pole amid the groundlings, many actors enter and exit off the front of the stage and Lear's soldiers show that they are the real "base football-players" by having a knock-around in the crowd. It's a potentially clever decision which goes astray in its ramifications: having established a bantering relationship of equals with the audience, characters find it difficult to force us to follow them when they attempt to change emotional register. Sometimes they simply do not seem to try, but acquiesce in the groundlings' bonhomie.

Julian Glover's Lear lacks the authority to pull us after him. Glover captures the King's vanity, but his is a grumbling rather than a rumbling Lear, whose madness (not helped by having to contend with constant percussive storm effects from the musicians' gallery above) is more of a prolonged strop than an abandonment of reason. That said, his performance in the final movement, returning to a doting lucidity, is first-rate. Geoffrey Whitehead's Gloucester is anodyne, Michael Gould's Edmund too bluff for us to allow him to turn villainous, and Paul Brennen's Edgar gives a round-Britain tour of accents in his various disguises rather than a discernible line through his character.

There are moments of magnificent clarity and power: the final image before the interval is of Edgar exiting through the main doors upstage to find himself walking almost into the hanging corpse of John McEnery's jaded, Lancastrian, banjolele-playing Fool, and Lear's own death later is such a beautifully natural subsidence that one scarcely notices it when it happens. But for every moment at which Kyle's production is light in the sense of illuminating the text, there are a handful of others when it is light in the sense of fumbling the play's gravitas.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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