Thursday, 10 November 2016

'King Lear' at The Old Vic

It seems to be 'King Lear''s winter with two major productions playing in London at the same time - Glenda Jackson at The Old Vic and Anthony Sher about to open at the Barbican. Of course, it's got to be Glenda Jackson on her return to stage after a career as a politician and I'm so pleased I've finally seen her on stage. I wonder how this play came about - did she down one day with a cup of tea and think, 'I want to stun the world, I want to be Lear'?

Glenda always conjures up images of 'Women In Love' and 'A Touch of Class' for me, films I haven't seen in a long time but which I remember fondly. The girl from Boots the Chemist turning up on stage and then film and showing the world what acting really was. And then taking her convictions into Parliament as a Labour MP, even becoming a junior minister for a short time. She retired from Parliament at the 2015 election and did a play for Radio 4 and this is her return to the stage at the age of 80. And there she was last night, strolling onto the stage with her 'daughter' in the play. No fanfares, no announcements, but you knew that *someone* had just walked onto the stage.

'Lear' is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays - I can appreciate it but it's over-long and complex, it's painful and everyone dies (or, at least, everyone that matters dies). I suspect that's part of the attraction for Glenda, to be on stage for much of the three and half hours of the production, to shout and rail against the fates, power-hungry daughters and against stupid men, in a tragedy of her own making. Lear brings it on himself by asking his daughters how much they love him - two go over the top to prove their love and are awarded with great tracts of England but the youngest tells the truth, 'you're my father and I love you and can say no more'. And that causes the downfall of the entire family after various twists and turns. Honesty can be dangerous.

We see pain and madness, lust for power and plain old lust, we see political machinations and their results. But we also see loyalty and love and a final reconciliation. A man has his eyes plucked out (and one eye thrown into the audience) for his loyalty and another heeds the call of his master to follow him into death ('My master calls, I must not say no' says Kent, a line that always gets me). Lear's daughters descend into selfishness, power and lust while his youngest daughter rescues him. It's all terribly tragic and all because of a simple question asked by a father of his children. Anyway, you know the story.

We were greeted by a plain stage with a backdrop made up of moveable white panels with projections beamed onto them, including the act and scene number throughout the play. The stage is busy with the cast vacuum cleaning and putting out chairs, all in contemporary dress, moving round chatting as the noisy audience took its collective seats. I wasn't sure about the staging but came to love it with the weirdly cast shadows and uncluttered look, focusing on the actors and the words. I particularly loved the storm scene with a curtain and floor of black bin bags with the screens turned black and showing driving rain. I thought that was very effective, one of the best storms ever. Well done to Deborah Warner as director and to both her and to Jean Kalman for an interesting set and lighting.

It is quite a high powered cast as well with Celia Imrie as a very controlled Goneril and Jane Horrocks as a lustful Regan in her skin-tight jeans and high heels, delighting in plucking out eyeballs and throwing one into the audience (I was surprised at the number of hands that went into the air to catch it). The traitorous and rival daughters were very different from one another but shared the lust for Edmund and for power. Morfydd Clark played a nice Cordelia, bewildered by her father's reaction to her honesty and then caring and brave when she returns and saves him. I liked the three daughters and the little additions they brought to their roles, like Celia Imrie arriving stage with a bucket and cloth to mop up Jane Horrock's vomit when she's poisoned. Sometimes it's the little touches that create the character.

Rhys Ifans was an excellent fool with his Superman onesie tied around his neck as a cloak. I rarely like Shakespeare's 'comic' characters but, for once, I actually liked that character despite the nonsense he sometimes spouts. He is Lear's Fool till the bitter end, following his master wherever he leads. The other male characters weren't quite on a par with this performance. I wasn't terribly impressed with Simon Manyonda    as Edmund, the nasty character who seeks advancement at the expense of his brother and father. Why did he masturbate at one point and pull his shorts down at the back to show us his bum - shouldn't he pull the front down? But that is down to Deboral Warner's direction, I suppose. I rarely heard him clearly when he wasn't facing the audience. Harry Melling as his brother Edgar also exposed his bum at one point and then everything when he stripped naked, which was brave. There seemed to be quite a lot of men taking their tops off unnecessarily and Kent even strips to change into the same clothes at one point.

The stage, however, belonged to Glenda Jackson and easily so. She's the central character in the play but, more than that, she has a rare and powerful presence. While some of the others on stage seemed to be shouting their lines she raised her voice and projected and used her voice as part of her armoury of acting. There was a deep power in her performance, a very controlled power that she unleashed when she felt she needed to and then reigned in again. A performance of pain and despair, and eventually, finding a way back to becoming a loving parent again. Glenda gave us a masterclass in how to act. Some of the younger members of the cast would do well to take lessons from her.

I was a little bit worried when I walked into the theatre that Glenda might be all 'big name' but not all that on stage - well, she is 80 - and I am delighted to put that worry to bed. She gave us everything you could want and more. She's still got it and, if anything, her age gives her even more power. She deserved every clap from that standing ovation at the end. I wonder what she'll do next?

Well done Glenda on a magnificent performance!

No comments: