Liverpool Everyman / touring
Opened 5 November, 2008

Wednesday was a day for epochal political rhetoric. Bare hours after Barack Obama’s inspiring victory speech, Rupert Goold’s production of King Lear opened with its antithesis, Margaret Thatcher’s recitation on entering Downing Street in 1979 of St Francis of Assisi’s prayer: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” and so on. Instead, she arguably nurtured an ethos of selfishness and disrespect which Goold takes as the context for his revival. The set consists of a flight of stone steps and a wall of corrugated iron across the frontage of a derelict civic building, not unlike parts of Liverpool at its pre-regeneration nadir. (The tour begins at the city’s Everyman Theatre.) The cast are dressed in period shabby-casual, topped off with party hats, at a retirement-age birthday party. When the king begins to announce his division of the kingdom between his three daughters, he cannot resist following up the words “And now…” with a crooned “…the end is near…”.

For this is palpably not King Lear, but rather an elderly man who tries to arrange an easy old age for himself but falls prey to his own vanity and misjudgement and his older daughters’, well, Thatcherism. Nor does the play suffer for it. Pete Postlethwaite is not a majestic actor, but he is an expressive one who brings us feelingly every step of the way along Lear’s human journey. This honesty extends through the company so that all the actors use their own accents; consequently, the final-act standoff between Albany and Edmund, in the Northern Irish persons of Michael Colgan and Jonjo O’Neill, sounds like a strident day in the Stormont Assembly.

As high-concept Goold goes, this pales before his reinventions of Faustus, Six Characters In Search Of An Author or even last year’s Macbeth, although like that production it includes grainy video projections to evoke the war. It also makes a self-referential homage to Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing, and in another nod to his own previous work the “map” of the divided kingdom is a set of Chapman Brothers-style vitrines such as appeared in Faustus. A bit less of that might not go amiss. Some other moments are overdone or incomprehensible, but further interpolations shine like uncovered nuggets. A clutch of brief additional scenes and/or reassignments of lines gives the Fool (Forbes Masson on good form) the progression he so keenly needs through the second half of the play; a new character emerges, “the Boy”, a reluctant witness to events. Goneril (Caroline Faber, husky) and Regan (Charlotte Randle, shrill) each get their own descent into madness, with Regan exhibiting strong psychopathia sexualis. And at the centre of it is Postlethwaite’s performance, which in a way is Lear as Willy Loman. And that’s fine: Loman in Death Of A Salesman put paid to the notion that tragedy has to be about an elevated personage, just as long as they take us on the emotional and psychological connection with them. This Lear certainly does.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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