OUR half-term treat was a trip to the Old Vic in London to see the amazing Glenda Jackson play King Lear. We had been well primed by her masterly portrayal of the 104-year-old narrator in Radio 4’s recent dramatisation of Émile Zola’s epic family saga of greed and intrigue, Blood, Sex and Money (Radio, 4 December 2015). Sadly, the Lear was a grave disappointment.
At times, the veteran actress was powerfully moving. She was particularly touching in Lear’s maddest scene, in which he hallucinates a mouse and much else. But there was a lack of emotional coherence and narrative thrust.
Perhaps we have been spoiled. There have been several Lears about recently. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is offering a performance of commanding range from Antony Sher as the king who addresses his failing powers by carving his kingdom into portions for his three daughters. This was monarch by divine right, a high priest who channelled the celestial when he called down maledictions on those who fell outside his favour. His was a disturbing descent from cosmic command to personal collapse.
Before that, we saw Simon Russell Beale at the National Theatre (Diary, 25 April 2014). His Lear began as a merciless dictator who held his court in a state of nervous dread. His behaviour — along with that of his boisterous and brutal knights — made his daughters’ demand that they should be reduced seem entirely reasonable. His subsequent disintegration into madness then became all the more moving.
Jackson lacks such a story. Her director, Deborah Warner, has filled her production with gimmicks and tricks, but they feel empty. Edmund’s gymnastics, buttock-baring, and, most bizarrely of all, his entrance carrying a ten-foot ladder, seemed pointless. Regan’s lustful sexuality, before her acts of cruelty or violence, appeared gratuitous rather than organic. Most problematically, the central gender swap added nothing to the psychological burden of the drama.
When Gillian Bevan played Cymbeline as a queen rather than a king at the RSC earlier this year, the switch added a dimension of maternal anguish. But this female Lear merely prompted the thought that most women have too much emotional intelligence to do anything as silly as Lear does.
Two days later, at the Liverpool Everyman, we had a happier experience with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Generally considered Shakespeare’s first play, it feels a try-out for all the theatrical devices of his later comedies: lovers’ trysts, elopement, cross-dressing, and betrayal, rounded off by the conventional happy ending. The play lacks the emotional richness of Shakespeare’s later comedies, but a touring production from the Globe Theatre gave a splendid modern integrity to all that.
It relocated the play into the world of 1960s pop: 45rpm vinyl discs replaced the Elizabethan love letter. The earnest young hero became a figure of mild fun. And it was decidedly contemporary in its take on gender relations.
The play infamously contains a knotty line in which one of the men offers his fiancée to his friend as a mark of male bonding. Modern audiences find that preposterous, but the director Nick Bagnall confronted it head on with a demonstration of female solidarity between the two heroines: it spoke to our times.
If only the same could have been said about King Lear at the Old Vic.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester. www.paulvallely.com