The Royal Shakespeare Company has always been keen to encourage new work, as well as keep Shakespeare’s oeuvre alive. The RSC’s production and world premiere of Irish playwright Marina Carr’s new play, The Cordelia Dream, is a shining example of Shakespearean verve. With the RSC’s major productions in full swing in the West End, it is so refreshing to have the contrast of this innovative work at an intimate venue in the depths of the East End.
In their own words, the RSC claims that “central to their work is the opportunity to investigate [Shakespeare’s] influence on modern and contemporary writers.” Carr’s new commission, despite it’s shorter run and more remote (but fascinating) venue, is easily a match in quality and thrilling entertainment as any of the more widely-publicized RSC shows. Not only is Wilton’s Music Hall (the world’s oldest surviving music hall in the world, dating back to the late 1850’s) the most fantastically atmospheric venue, but Carr’s treatment of core thematic material from Lear within a Beckettian setting is possibly the best two hours I spent in a theatre in 2008.
As the audience assembles, a tense atmosphere already pervades the hall. Strings can be heard tuning in the background as the character known as ‘Old Man’ sits at his piano in the center of a sparse set. The audience joins this Old Man in his bleak apartment, where a Woman (Michelle Gomez)—who it later transpires is his daughter—comes to visit. They are both composers, but the father hasn’t finished anything for twenty-five years, whilst the daughter’s compositions are critically acclaimed. Having fought for years, Woman comes to tell Old Man about a dream she had in which he appears as Lear and she as Cordelia, dead at his feet.
What is so fantastic about this writing is the way in which Carr extends and develops Shakespeare’s exploration of Lear and Cordelia’s relationship. It not only focuses on the intricacies of father and daughter, but it extends the examination to mother and son, husband and wife, man and woman. In this short dialogue, Carr offers a plethora of erudite observations about family relationships, growing old, and the oceans of difference between men and women.
Some aspect of Hargreaves’ portrayal of the Old Man is not as utterly convincing as Gomez’s performance as his daughter; perhaps because she enters from the outside world, her existence becomes more credible than that of the Old Man, who we are to believe has been cocooned in this stark, inhospitable space for years. The Old Man’s fury, jealousy and anger, however, are powerfully tangible. Hargreaves creates the perfect example of a man hibernating on just the wrong side of the thin line between love and hate. On the desperate search for success and validation for his talent, he seems furious with himself for having brought into the world a person whose talent and success overshadows his own.
Everything about Michelle Gomez’s performance is compelling and utterly believable (with the possible exception of a slap ‘round the face she delivers to the Old Man in the first Act). Though we never see her outside the confines of the Old Man’s squalid surroundings (with the exception of her arrival on the video intercom), and though we don’t even know her name, we believe she has a successful career as well as a husband and five children. She and her life seem tangible and real.
The electricity between Gomez and Hargreaves is also an aspect which delights. As the plot develops and their relationship alters, becoming almost a subversion of themselves, wonderful contrasts emerge. The subversion of roles is very deliberately indicated as the Woman and Old Man exchange clothes in front of each other. Giles Cadle’s costume design plays a key symbolic role throughout, playfully exploring the concept that one’s outer appearance directly reflects one’s dignity or status. Though some would say this labors the point, I believe it forces the audience to focus yet harder on this most complex of relationships—failing father and clever, confident daughter. The Old Man says at one point, “man should not have daughters.” Whilst the old man has at least acknowledged his own difficulty relating to his daughter, the play exposes a wider problem with the man’s life: it is not just his daughter with whom he has a terrible relationship, but also with his wife and his mother, taking the audience beyond the paternal issues Shakespeare explores in Lear.
Thanks to the careful direction of Selina Cartmell, these relative contrasts flow seamlessly together, each emitting great drama and emotion. We see frightening moments of tension placed alongside heart-wrenching silences and quiet moments of tenderness, all emphasized within this vertical stage space that emits vocal intensity and volume. Perhaps the venue is an aid in projection, but both Hargreaves and Gomez demonstrate fantastic clarity throughout—not a syllable lost from shouts of rage to the slightest of stage whispers.
Importantly for a play about two composers, Conor Linehan’s musical score is captivating. It simulates the anxious, dream-like essence at the heart of this play. With an offstage string quartet maintaining an eerie yet beautifully atmospheric sound throughout, the music adds power to the performance especially when mixed with pre-recorded music to bring about a powerful and deafening dénouement.
This play is one of the RSC’s many new commissions over the years, performed outside the West End with a small cast, a short text, and at a small venue. Yet this play is far from small. The Cordelia Dream is a fascinating exploration embarked upon by a talented playwright and top class actors at a venue that is one of London’s best kept secrets. This is exactly why the RSC should be congratulated for encouraging and facilitating new and exciting theatre off the trodden path.