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Review of Glenda Jackson’s King Lear

The Old Vic, London (25 Oct-3 Dec 2016)

Glenda Jackson is not only an actress with some calibre, but also a Labour MP who has spoken out against the gross inequalities in UK society. She articulates well and has a big heart. Since King Lear is a play with much to say about social justice, inequality and corruption, I thought that Glenda Jackson would be ideally placed to convey the text in such a way that it lives and breathes. I so wanted this to be good. I had no problem with Lear being played by a woman – and neither would Shakespeare.

The opening scene hinges on Lear’s reactions to each of his three daughter’s responses (to his demands for flattery). Consequently I thought it odd that for much of the scene Glenda was sat centre stage with her back to the audience. This seriously hindered her expression and made some lines less audible.

In the play, we first see the villain, Edmund delivering a brilliant soliloquy – one of the most famous in Theatre (‘Thou Nature art my Goddess...’). I knew we were in trouble when Simon Manyonda (playing Edmund) came on with a skipping rope, skipping while he delivered his lines. Part way through he threw the rope away and continued his lines doing press ups, then he squatted like a toad (still delivering his lines) and finally he turned his back to the audience, pulled his shorts below his arse and thrust his hips sexually. The audience loved it (‘isn’t Shakespeare great!’) In other scenes he answered his mobile phone (with text not in the play) and walked about with a full sized ladder – which was never used.

A little later, in Act 1, Scene 2, the character of Edmund discusses the way people blame astrological alignments for their misfortunes, as if their predicament was the result of divine predestination. The text expresses this idea (of pre-ordained imposition) as a ‘divine thrusting on.’ Simon Manyonda pulled his shorts down again (at the word ‘thrusting’) and moved his hips sexually. He got another huge laugh, and once again destroyed the meaning of the text. The audience were in unison – what great fun this is! I never knew Shakespeare was this good.

The disguised Edgar entered a scene pushing a shopping trolley. It was another useless, arbitrary prop designed to liven things up. Earlier, when Edmund tells Edgar to ‘go armed,‘ Edgar expresses no surprise – as if it were natural for his father and his father’s men to want to kill him! Harry Melling (playing Edgar) showed so little understanding of the words he was speaking.

The Fool in King Lear is pivotal. Everything he says to his King is important. He is constantly explaining to Lear what has happened. With his cryptic comments he tells Lear that he has given away too much, that the natural order of things has been inverted and that Lear has not rightly perceived things. In this production, however, he had no such function and was reduced to mere light relief. Rhys Ifans, who played the Fool came on in a superman costume (complete with cape) and quickly degraded his part into a form of silly stand-up with a wide variety of funny voices. I don’t think he understood any of his lines, nor why his character was saying them. At one stage he took a turkey from a fridge and performed cunnilingus on it. The audience loved it.

When the disguised Kent is asked by Lear who he is, Sargon Yelda (playing Kent) looked down the front of his trousers before delivering the line ‘A man sir.’ This was the tone of the whole production – cheap laughs instead of meaningful exchanges. In disguise, Yelda’s Kent adopted a Middle Eastern accent which sounded like the comedian Omid Djalili – a conspicuous charicature which continually drew attention to itself. The King of France (played by Matt Gavan) also delivered his lines in a strange contorted accent – a sort of cross between Inspector Clouseau and ‘Allo ‘Allo. He also added new lines delivered in French.

At the start of the play, Cordelia is in a quandary, distressed by her sisters’ hollow flattery and her father’s insistence that she will do the same. She speaks an aside, revealing her thoughts to the audience – it should be a quiet confidence wherein she wonders what she can do in this situation. She resolves to simply love her father as she always has, but not to play this ugly flattering game. In this production, Morfydd Clark (Cordelia) boomed out triumphantly in one long monotone ‘What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.’ There was no sense of reflection, inner turmoil, distress or discomfort. I felt like banishing her myself.

Gloucester mumbled his lines nearly all the way through – and was hard to understand. He also rushed lines which should be timed better for comedic effect (e.g. ‘Come, if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles’).

Glenda Jackson (as Lear) fluffed far too many lines. For example:
‘Nothing will come of nothing’ became
Nothing can come of nothing’

‘What says the fellow there? Call the clot-poll back’ became
‘What says the clot-poll there? Call the clot-poll back’

And there were many more. But worse, for me than honest mistakes like these was the lack of awareness of what is happening in each scene. In Act 1, Scene 4 Lear is shocked at his daughters’ lack of respect for him – he can’t believe that they would disregard him so. He says:
‘Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus?’
Delivering the first part of this line (‘Does Lear walk thus?’) Glenda Jackson adopted a comedic walk, and for ‘Speak thus?’ she adopted a silly Disney-character voice. Everyone laughed. How could it be missed that Lear here is questioning his own reduced status and identity? Later in the same speech, Lear utters a profound rhetorical reflection:
‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’
In this production when Glenda Jackson delivers the above line, all her knights raise their hands like eager schoolchildren wanting to answer. What kind of director thinks for one moment that such a debased response will add to this great play? Deborah Warner (the Director) should be ashamed.

Lear’s knights were shown as unruly louts, jeering laddishly and passing around beer cans. In the text, Goneril and Regan conspire against their father and they wish to frustrate him by reducing the number of Knights who can stay with him. It is Goneril who asserts that they are ‘so disordered, so deboshed’ and ‘rioutous.’ In reality (from the text itself) they are seen to be courteous and well mannered. Many directors fall into this trap of not reading the text closely – thus causing the audience to sympathise with these ‘unnatural hags.’

I left at the interval. I’d had enough. It was painful and I knew the cast was not suddenly going to grow wiser for the second part. I’ve seen productions like these before and I find them insulting. Sadly many audiences are forgetting how much better Theatre can be.

Celia Imrie, as Goneril was one of the few saving graces, and I’m sure that her performance would have looked a lot better in a different production. Here, it looked out of place because everyone else was performing in such an un-naturalistic way. There was so little real interaction between the actors, many of whom appeared to be ‘announcing’ their lines for their own benefit.

Jackson (as Lear) showed a very limited range – there was little modulation and an odd penchant for turning her lines into childish sneers of the ‘nyaa-nyaa’ kind. Too often she skated over Lear’s insights so that his reflections became quick quips instead of thoughtful turning points. Her rages and anger were unconvincing.

I am very comfortable with modern versions of Shakespeare, and I have no problem with meaningful modern props and interpretations, but not when they are mindless distractions or arbitrary whims.

Productions like this which throw in so many cheap jokes and gimmicks are expressing a secret insecurity in the text itself – or in their abilities to convey (or understand) its meaning. If in doubt, flash your arse, smoke a cigarette, carry a ladder, wheel on a shopping trolley or answer a mobile phone. It is using prop as decoration rather than in service to a specific communication. Nevertheless audiences and critics love it. I’m waiting now for Hamlet on stilts or Coriolanus on a unicycle.

Another distraction which broke the spell of Theatre was that each new scene was accompanied by a large projected light display of its name (e.g. ‘Act 1, Scene 4’) which remained displayed behind the actors whilst they were on stage. This served only to take us out of the narrative, preventing it from being a living, breathing, magical event. It felt like boxes were being ticked as the play progressed.

King Lear is rich, deep, relevant and immensely contemporary. It unflinchingly addresses some of the most profound questions. It alloys its pathos with a dark humour. It is subtle and sophisticated, but not difficult. This production never really got to grips with the text – instead it looked like an amateur Youth Theatre Production. Key moments were thwarted, subverted and reduced to something banal or writ larger. Scenes were stripped of their true emotional content and cheap laughs prevented the audience’s proper investment in the narrative. What should have been a powerful, muscular narrative arc was reduced to a flimsy straight line.

English Theatre today is in a sorry state. This was yet another poor production which took from us the great riches of Shakespeare’s wonderful words. It was another expensive journey supporting a Theatre industry which for the most part is simply not trying hard enough. What I saw was standard fare for the Theatre today. I love the Theatre so much, that I want to say this simply isn’t good enough. It’s poor. I passionately wish it were better.