This production of King Lear met with a series of unflattering reviews during its initial run in Liverpool as part of the City of Culture 2008 celebrations. However, these negatives reviews don’t seem to have damaged interest in its London performances. With the comfort of hearing the production has undergone significant revisions since Liverpool, London theatregoers’ curiosity brings them in droves to see renowned film actor, Pete Postlethwaite, perform this milestone theatrical role as Lear.
Giles Cadle’s set design has immediate impact even before the action begins. Corrugated iron lines the back of the stage with a dozen stony steps dominating the space, creating a feeling of starkness and dilapidation. On the whole, the stone steps are a very effective tool, symbolising and exploring key themes within the play. For example, at the start of the play, Lear emerges from the highest point and is positioned centrally at the top of the steps. Throughout the play, as his authority, kingship and sanity fall away from him, he spends more of his time at ground level.
Without a doubt the greatest feature of the production is the torrent of rain that falls for a good twenty minutes during Lear’s storms. As the whole cast emerges onto the stepped stage, singing a lamenting madrigal with choreographed moves, the rain continues to pour. It cannot fail but create a thundering impact—and a big puddle centre stage, incidentally.
What is slightly frustrating about Rupert Goold’s production (although it appears this was so much more the case in initial performances), is that many small touches are included to either propose a new interpretation of the text or to offer extra symbolic meaning to a particular scene or theme, with varying levels of success. This works effectively in some cases, if a little over-emphatically. When Lear splits up his kingdom, each of the characters dons a Christmas cracker-style paper hat, offering a very obvious but salient commentary on the mockery Lear makes of kingship by dividing his kingdom. The use of microphones deliberately presented on stage—during the daughters’ protestations of love for their father in which Lear laments, “I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning”—also works well to show the self-conscious way in which Lear is trying to amplify the authority that he simply can no longer command.
The production also presents a heavily pregnant Goneril (Caroline Faber) at the opening of the play—a concept that at first seems strange and unnecessary but inevitably adds extra power to Lear’s words as he disowns her, pointing accursedly at her convex stomach:
Into her womb convey sterility.
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her.
Not all of this production’s idiosyncrasies work as effectively. In the opening scene we are presented with the Earl of Kent (Nigel Cooke) inexplicably dressed as a vicar, a point that is totally disregarded throughout the rest of the performance. Thankfully this odd costume choice does not draw attention away from what is a spectacular performance by Cooke, who nigh-on steals the show from the very start, but particularly in the heartbreaking, pathos-heavy scenes between him, Lear, and Tom o’ Bedlam. The decision to put Lear in a pink floral dress after the storm is also a redundant and even damaging one. Whilst I can see it might represent his total loss of sanity and dignity, and even equate his total lack of power and authority to the subordinate position of women in Renaissance society, all it really does is take away from the power of Lear’s final scene with the still-living Cordelia: the scene becomes something of a farce.
The lack of emotional impact of this cornerstone scene is not then entirely the fault of Pete Postlethwaite, our Lear for the evening. Some of the lack of emotion felt by the audience, however, is the result of Postlethwaite’s performance earlier on. This veteran Royal Shakespeare Company actor is rightly renowned as an outstanding screen actor (In the Name of the Father, The Usual Suspects, and playing Friar Lawrence in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, to offer a few accolades), and this shows in his assured and confident portrayal of this complex character. Postlethwaite’s sense of timing offers a very clear interpretation of the verse, and as he stands soaked to the skin on the heath it is impossible not to feel the pain and confusion Lear is surely enduring at this point.
Yet something is missing. If one were to draw the narrative journey of Lear on paper, it would be a steep, downward-pointing diagonal line, but with Postlethwaite’s Lear it feels as though we haven’t started high enough for the descent to make the rightful impact. His voice, his own self does not appear large, imposing or as threateningly impressive as it should when we first meet Lear. Somehow, Postlethwaite lacks the initial arrogant power that he is to lose, and therefore what follows inevitably cannot be as powerful as it ought.
Notable performances from the Fool (Forbes Masson) and Edgar (Tobias Menzies) help to make the almost four hours in the theatre whizz by. Masson’s Fool is boisterous and lewd, which inevitably provokes much laughter. His songs are boldly performed, and although through the King’s love and trust in him he is able more than any other to criticise Lear’s actions, in his eyes we often see a world of lamentation for his beloved master. Masson’s portrayal of such emotion from an emotive glance is remarkable. Likewise, Menzies’ portrayal of Poor Tom is riveting: it consumes Edgar beyond recognition. Too often in productions, Poor Tom is presented in a ridiculous and deliberately unconvincing manner. For Menzies to encompass this ‘other’ so effectively and seriously brings a refreshing potency to the scenes amidst the tempest.
For all its minor faults, including Lear’s slump down rather than torrential fall, there is much to recommend in this production—especially from some of the supporting cast and the dramatic set design. And considering its embryonic stages in Liverpool, perhaps Postlethwaite may master his fall during his London reign. Despite its length, this performance never feels laborious—laughter, pouring rain, pathos and plain old blood, guts and gore are in abundance, ensuring a more than ample evening of tragic spectacle.