Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: King Lear; Dead Funny - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: King Lear; Dead Funny - Review

Article excerpt

Dynastic affairs and international relations were once a seamless continuum. Royal weddings accompanied peace treaties. An heirless realm was vulnerable to invasion. Botched successions led to war.

This is the political context of King Lear but Deborah Warner sets the play in modern times, which muddles everything. Britain in the Dark Ages is represented by a scout hut or a therapy suite. Plain walls, bleached flooring, a semi-circle of blue plastic chairs. Enter the king's court led by a crownless Glenda Jackson (Lear), sporting a black ensemble topped by a chic scarlet cardigan. Is this a brutal tyrant on the brink of a psychotic meltdown? Nope. It looks like Granny wearing 'something special' for her 80th at the care home. She and her colleagues discuss the dismemberment of the kingdom and the scene moves to a vacant warehouse with a fridge full of beer, centre-stage. It's Goneril's palace, apparently. The action continues with an air of random whimsicality. Here comes the Fool (Rhys Ifans) in a Superman costume. Sargon Yelda does a funny-foreigner accent that makes Kent unintelligible. Simon Manyonda plays Edmond as a sporty teenager who delivers the 'God, stand up for bastards' speech while flexing his abs and doing some yoga. A bemused William Chubb performs Albany in a crumpled tweed suit that makes him look like C.S. Lewis regretting his decision to join the Magdalen Amateur Players.

Doubtless they had lots of fun rehearsing this stuff and receiving 'brainwaves' in the dressing-room but it's a bore to watch because nothing means anything. Cannier cast members realise that the embellishments will misfire. Excellent Celia Imrie, though too old for the newly-wed Goneril, is crisply authoritative in a Hillary trouser suit. Karl Johnson plays it straight as Gloucester in a navy blue sports jacket (Matalan, £29.29).

The synthetic thunderstorm is quite good. Wobbly sheeting, video hail, bangs and flashes. But the actors are inaudible despite microphones (Shakespeare's fault for writing an unplayable scene). Glenda gives it a decent shot. She's too mannered at times, often snarly rather than menacing. Without weapons or armour her violent threats are meaningless. Once she nearly throws a plastic chair at Kent. At the end of the play, she's sad but it's a borrowed sadness, the product of training and preparation, not of true suffering.

One imagines that the placement of a female in the lead role was intended to make this mad old yarn clearer and more dramatic. …

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