Magazine article The Spectator

Lear for Masochists

Magazine article The Spectator

Lear for Masochists

Article excerpt

King Lear Olivier, in rep until 28 May What the Women Did Southwark Playhouse, until 15 February Directors appear to have two design options when approaching a Shakespeare tragedy.

Woodstock or jackboot. Woodstock means papal robes, shoulder-length hair and silver Excaliburs gleaming from jewelled belts.

Jackboot means pistols, berets, holsters and submachine-guns. Sam Mendes sticks the jackboot into King Lear in an attempt to find 'a modern understanding of the story', as he puts it.

What this 'modern understanding' reveals is that Shakespeare's opening scene allows the dramatic focus to move between the personal and the political with invisible fluency. Mendes destroys this asset by laying on a televised show trial. Lear's daughters, surrounded by scowling commandos, are arraigned at miked-up tables as if accused of treason. The intimidating atmosphere leaves no room for the weird intimacy and hypocrisy of the family drama to unfold. When Cordelia's speech infuriates Lear, he overturns two of the chunkiest tables (rather too easily for a man of 80), and the crash-bangwallop of flying furniture kills the great line, 'Come not between the dragon and his wrath!'

This production enjoys experiments. In the storm scene (thundery but rainless), Lear perches on the brink of a hand-cranked diving board that soars 20 feet into the air while he hammers out his lines. Not a great idea.

Lear's gang of irregulars, all dressed like Action Man, are a pest. They laugh uproariously at everything the Fool says, and their guffaws, rattled out like clockwork, always start and end in unison. The Fool's utterances may be ribald, cheeky and perceptive but they aren't wisecracks. Not to today's audience, anyway, and to pretend otherwise is to generate confusion.

Mendes is often tempted to use the overlarge Olivier to showcase his high-concept ideas. But he's also aware that it works better with a second enclosure within its vast spaces. In the eye-gouging scene, he creates an underground wine cellar, where Gloucester is mutilated with a corkscrew. This is the show's finest moment: novel, artful and brimful of potency and horror. The only jarring note is Cornwall's underpowered stabbing: Michael Nardone, looking like a yuppie at a business lunch, glances down at his stained shirt as if politely noting a soup spillage made by a clumsy busboy. Of the other blunders, the most notable is the decision to force Lear to club the Fool to death in a bath. …

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