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Bragg and Eliot in the cathedral

11 November 2016

Eve Stebbing on arts in Norwich’s Hostry

THE Hostry at Norwich Cathedral has become the hub for an annual Arts Festival. For the past six years, theatre professionals from all over the country have come together to perform works with a special meaning for them. Sir Michael Hopkins’s design, with its contemporary polished glass and original stone, makes the building the perfect setting for an ingenious new take on Shakespeare.

When Melvyn Bragg’s King Lear In New York had its première at the Chichester Festival in 1992, Bragg, the star of The South Bank Show, received mixed reviews. Fourteen years and four redrafts later, the play is in good shape. The director, Stash Kirkbride, has retuned the script to fever pitch. He brought us an evening that was as jittery and electric as a Shakespearian storm.

Robert is a one-time Manhattan celebrity who is preparing to play Lear. Louis Hilyer’s interpretation revealed him as a likeable fellow with a good heart whose life is a charming, if rather dangerous, shambles. His wife is in an asylum, his daughter is an addict, and, of all ill fates to befall him, his lover has become his agent. How much sharper than a serpent’s tooth it all is.

Bragg’s script is highly entertaining. It is also mysterious. As the story unfolds, it is clear that the character of Lear operates some strange redemptive magic on Robert’s life. But the real nitty-gritty of how Shakespeare’s play effects its transformations on him is never explained. Just like great acting, its workings remain a secret.

The packed festival programme was filled with surprising delights, not least Peter Wilson’s very personal account of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The producer and director, whose productions include Susan Hill’s long-running West End play The Woman in Black, has a special relationship with Eliot’s last great work. It was an inspiration to his mother.

Who could have known that the highly complex piece could be made so passionate? Wilson’s recitation was a real tour de force. His powerful performance was driven by the desire to search — not only for Eliot’s meaning, but for the enlightenment that his own mother drew from these words.

As he thinks his way through the lines, we are drawn into the engaging dialogue that the poet was having with himself. Eliot’s final work proves to be an attempt to find coherent expression for his unique blend of spiritual ideas. Starting with Heraclitus, the disciplines that illuminate the text come from St John of the Cross, Hegel, and Julian of Norwich.

With such a diverse group of thinkers, it is not surprising that opposition threatens to undermine Eliot’s intention. In a post- performance debate, the chairman, Melvyn Bragg, hinted at a lack of unity, which might undermine the work. But, whatever inconsistencies exist on the page, Wilson’s performance brought us a fascinating insight into an exciting spiritual and creative exploration.

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