Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 2 March, 2010

This is one of those productions which are bewilderingly less than the sum of their parts. It includes a clutch of solid, even strong performances: my most significant criticism in this respect would be that Tunji Kasim is rather too callow for the scheming Edmund – his “gods stand up for bastards” speech is close to being an adolescent snit. Yet David Farr’s directorial vision of the play remains a mystery to me, except that that it is bleak.
Jon Bausor’s design appears to locate the action in a derelict factory. The cast are dressed in a combination of Edwardian, mediaeval and generally depths-of-history: Edmund and his brother Edgar fight their Act Five duel with huge broadswords despite the service revolver holstered on Edmund’s Sam Browne belt, whilst Edgar is in armoured helm and breastplate. The cumulative effect reminded me of a 1970s science-fiction TV drama episode set on a post-industrial planet that has since devolved into feudal warlordism. What this clash of epochs may have to say about Shakespeare’s generational upheavals is beyond me.
Greg Hicks gives a characteristically detailed, thought-through reading of Lear. The king is introspective in any case: he makes a number of remarks anticipating his madness, almost as if living in dread of losing his sanity. There are few pyrotechnics when he does finally crack (apart from a ludicrously localised rain-shower), and his final-act coda is likewise downplayed: this Lear delivers the line “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” not as a howl, but in a desolate bass-baritone. Some of Hicks’ touches are misjudged: it’s all very well to play an older character by deliberately stooping, but it is absurd to notice Hicks seeming a full head shorter than Katy Stephens as his daughter Regan, and the opening scene or two on press night showed a strange Henry Kissinger-like tendency to voizze all hizz gonsonandz. (There are some general intelligibility problems when actors are turned away from us, which I have not hitherto noticed as an RSC phenomenon.)
Above all, there is little emotional or psychological range in the world of the play. The walls of the factory disintegrate slab by slab (ho-hum); lighting grows weaker and more washed-out; the final restoration of order seems hollow, as if this were simply a drama of entropy. But it is, or should be, so much more.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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