One of the first sunny days of the year finally arrives, and where better to go as the sun begins to dip towards the horizon, than into the crowds as they bustle into the seats and the yard of the Globe for director Dominic Dromgoole’s production of King Lear.
A traditional Renaissance band of musicians help create a rousing, jovial atmosphere. Everything, as per usual, is idyllic, aside from the incessant, yet unavoidable planes roaring overhead.
The first striking aspect of the opening scene is the distinct contrast between the Earl of Kent (Paul Copley) and Lear (David Calder). Although Copley presents a fusty old Kent, he speaks eminent sense, further highlighting the rash eccentricity of Lear’s disastrous actions. Calder immediately establishes the unreasonable and arrogant manner of a King, bored and careless with his power.
Lear’s Fool (Danny Lee Wynter)—always a perplexing character and more sinister than other Shakespearean fools—appears here nimble and pixie-like, employing physical humour to entertain the crowds.
Calder succeeds in unraveling the protagonist in a way that forces sympathy from the audience. Calder’s performance is refreshing and revealing, in that it helps to relate Lear’s behaviour to relationships in our own lives. As Lear is faced with the demise of both his kingship and his life, he panics and makes rash decisions. Lear tries to make a memorable impact on his final few days, but instead gains notoriety for causing havoc. This scenario is surely one that is ever-present in today’s society. Perhaps Lear has always been this foolish, but I suspect not. Cordelia (Jodie McNee) loves and respects Lear, granted “according to (her) bond,” but her judgment of character suggests it is the threat of old age that incurs this rash behaviour from the King.
Edmund (Daniel Hawkford) and Edgar (Trystan Gravelle) work well together with convincing interplay. Hawkforth portrays the perfect combination of seeming amiability and scheming deceit. Full of energy, we almost sympathize with his cause; he is, at least at first, more likable than Lear. Gravelle seizes the opportunity to shine during his wonderful performance as ‘Poor Tom’. He is captivating, lively, comical, and even convincing that he is not the Edgar we have previously seen.
Sian Williams brilliantly choreographs the fight scene near the end of the performance between Edmund and Edgar. It appears realistic and provokes great suspense in the audience as they watch in trepidation the two brothers fight to the death.
The iconic storm is not quite the dramatic scene of thunder and turmoil that I was expecting; however it does have an authentic feel to it. Indeed, at times, it seems very much like taking a sneak peek into something like Shakespeare’s original production, most evocative of this being musician Arngeir Hauksson, in full Renaissance dress, clearly visible in the heavens, stage right, happily rotating the thunder machine. That said, the muddied, earthen, monster-like creatures that emerge violently from all around, circling the audience and stage with rain sticks, affect a thoroughly modern take on the scene, creating a sort of ‘surround sound’ effect of rain.
The Earl of Gloucester (Joseph Mydell) is portrayed as kindly, generous and compassionate. We do not berate his stupidity in being fooled, but pity the abuse performed against his honesty. It is kindness that leads to the utterly gruesome portrayal of his eye-gouging. This scene is particularly well-executed; the audience experiences a kind of voyeurism, in which blinding curiosity battles within itself.
Claire van Kampen has composed subtly atmospheric, unobtrusive, yet inspiring music that serves the action on stage. Traditional performances at the Globe always seem to achieve this careful balance very admirably.
As Lear continues on his cathartic journey, I find myself in a quandary. Although Calder does successfully evoke my sympathy for the broken man that Lear becomes, it feels as though a slight sense of gravitas is missing in key scenes like that of the storm. I feel Lear’s arrogant grandiloquence at the opening of the play, and yet his descent into madness does not quite evoke that heart wrenching pain and despair one masochistically yearns for when experiencing Lear. This aside, by the time he meets again with Cordelia, Lear’s insanity and despair are justly tangible, and a believable and painful relationship exists between them.
Goneril and Regan (Sally Bretton and Kellie Bright, respectively) are fairly well-presented, becoming increasingly monstrous in their actions as the play develops. showing no remorse for their viciousness. It is probably more a restriction of the roles, but they do have just the faintest whiff of stereotypical Cinderella-esqueness, and, in effect, they lack the complexity of the key characters that surround them.
The moments following Lear’s death are effectively and atmospherically achieved. All the company joins the ballad singer in part harmony, creating a strikingly mournful tone. Cordelia and Lear slowly rise and join the cast. Although not exactly customary for a Shakespearean tragedy, a sprightly dance brings the weight of this sad time to a more pleasingly upbeat conclusion.
Not the Globe’s best production this year, but certainly worth the journey out. And perhaps even pray for a rainy day in London if you go—catching Lear during a downpour may actually enhance your experience at the Globe for once.