"Imagine an old woman sitting alone in a nursing home," begin the programme notes for Helena Kaut-Howson's production of King Lear in the city named after him. We have no need to imagine it, however, for this is the very framing device employed. As Kathryn Hunter's incoherent, wheelchair-bound crone goes into cardiac arrest, we infer that her own memories mesh with what she had been watching on television immediately before her seizure and unfold in her near-death subconscious. Leaving aside the question of what kind of nursing home would switch its TV over at 7:30, as shown here, from EastEnders to Gloucester's opening speech, the conceit allows Shakespeare's action to unfold against Pawel Dobrzycki's antique-institutional set, and functions primarily to explain a female Lear, complete with discreet goatee. The idea serves its purpose – the second half also begins with the bleep of an ECG, and ends with Lear "flatlining" – but provides little to the play by way of augmentation.
Hunter's Lear, now clad in a business suit and forsaking her chair only sporadically, even on the "heath", to hobble imperiously, is a quiet tyrant; bluster and bellowing have never hitherto been necessary to this Lear, and sound strangely to him on the occasions when he essays them – even the "Blow, winds..." speech begins in a terrible whisper. Hunter speaks for the most part with the slow, marmoreal authority of one to whom anything other than command has long been inconceivable; this attitude persists through much of Lear's madness, including the mock-trial scene in the hovel.
In terms of acting, the production is top-heavy. Hunter dominates, supported by her partner Marcello Magni as the Fool, in tartan tam and carrying as his jester's wand a candy-painted broom. Magni's business and performance are naturally impeccable but, awkward as it is to point this out, his accent does not help the intelligibility of the Fool's lines; one of his most eloquent moments is his native-tongue interjection at the machinations of Goneril and Regan, "Che famiglia!" Colin McCormack is a serviceably sturdy Kent, Simon Roberts (hampered by minor cuts) takes too long to get to grips with Edgar, and the fine Hayley Carmichael likewise has too little to do as Cordelia, simply killing time through the middle acts by being doubled as a miscellaneous knight. Against this nexus, the enormities of the Goneril-Regan-Edmund axis are not sufficiently palpable; Glyn Pritchard's Cornwall is as slight dramatically as Pritchard is physically, and Nick Cavaliere's Oswald all but bumbles.
The impression is that Kaut-Howson has approached the production largely from the angle of practical problem-solving, firstly in finding a dramatic basis for a cross-cast Lear and then in dealing with the resultant ramifications of the device she uses. Structure takes primacy over either individual performances or a distinctive collective tone, leaving Hunter, Magni and occasionally one or two others swaying uncertainly at the summit of an unsteady edifice of performance.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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