King Lear

I’m sorry this post has been a long time in coming. I was ill, then it was Christmas, then I was away … but enough excuses. Now I’m back, and here it is.

Just before I was struck down by ’flu, I was lucky enough to see King Lear at the Donmar. Even before the rave reviews appeared in the papers, I knew that Jacobi – who I last saw in his award-winning role as Malvolio in the Donmar West End’s Twelfth Night – acting Lear in the confined space of the tiny Donmar Theatre would be truly extraordinary.

Lear is my favourite Shakespeare. Perhaps spending so much time on it at A-level ingrained it into me, so that, although I’ve always had an atrocious memory for lines, now when I hear Lear there is a wonderful soothingness in the familiar beauty of the language.

corky arms … crack your cheeks … looped and windowed raggedness … burst smilingly …

It is heaven to hear them trickle into my ears, especially my favourite question ever:

Dost thou squinny at me?

Alongside the comforting familiarity of such beautiful words lurks the rather more traumatic memory of lying in bed at 6 a.m. on the morning of my Shakespeare final at university, desperately trying to memorise them. Scribbling away on pages and pages of notepaper any quotations that might be useful for the unknown questions that would be seen in three hours time. The terror and frustration at consistently forgetting a word or muddling up their order, cursing my brain that seems only ever to remember the gist of things when what was needed more than anything was perfect minute detail.

I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because of all that time spend on Lear at school, but while studying Shakespeare at university I kept coming back to it. Whatever aspect of Shakespeare I was thinking about, whichever plays I was scrutinising, Lear always reared its head. It was the lethal still centre at the heart of a whirlpool, the other plays swirling around its centrifugal pull.

And if Lear is the centre of Shakespeare’s vortex, then at the centre of Lear is the storm, the moment when Lear’s madness breaks.

Blow winds and crack your cheeks!

How astonished I was when these greatly-anticipated words were rasped low, echoing in an amplified whisper through the Donmar rather than being shouted over the crashes and booms of a theatrical storm.

When I was much younger my cello teacher told me that it was good to be able to play loudly, but to get someone to really listen you must be able to play softly; you have to make them lean forwards in their seats, craning their heads, straining their ears. And so, in Lear, we listened, spellbound, to this powerful quiet, this hissing entropy at the centre of the play’s destruction.

It is these unexpected moments that remake a play like Lear. An audience for Shakespeare already knows the story, and that must be a terrific problem for directors and actors. There can’t be a new twist, a new character, a new subplot … it’s all there already, written down hundreds of years ago and has already been read, performed, seen countless times.

And the audience will rely on the fact that they know what’s going to happen. There’s an inevitability to watching a Shakespeare play – especially one with so great a tragic arc as Lear – he will fall, his world will fall apart … this is what will happen and there is cathartic pleasure in watching it unfold.

So perhaps it is down to the director and actors to trip up the audience. To throw in something unexpected, to make them lean forwards to hear the words anew, or to make them lean back and gasp in surprise.

Ian McKellen’s Lear was renowned for the moment when he got completely starkers. Germaine Greer’s article about it for the Guardian is reliably ascerbic. I bet few people (other than director Trevor Nunn) had thought of ‘unaccommodated man’ in quite such graphic terms before.

And the Almeida’s production of Lear, back in 2002, to which I was taken on a school trip, conveyed the storm by the wooden panels of stage set falling down with terrific ‘crack’s and crashes, and rain pouring in on the stage for half an hour. It was wonderfully dramatic; we were all stunned.

Both these were visually astonishing. (It seems crude to say impressive.) But what I so admire about Jacobi’s Lear is that the astonishment lies in the way he speaks the words. The set was markedly stark, the costumes stayed away from opulence, the only props were the occasional letter or sword (and some rather simplified stocks for Kent). It was a bare performance in a much more impressive way than McKellen’s, stripping everything down to language rather than to the naked body.

I was stunned to hear those lines whispered, and I was grabbed even earlier by Jacobi’s scream before he uttered with dread certainty ‘I shall go mad.’ Lear’s madness risks becoming something of a refrain, ‘the King goes mad … when Lear is mad … do not make me mad … O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heav’n! / Keep me in temper; I would not be mad.’ But here, the piercing scream, the frankness of his line, brings a whole new horror to it.

Another resonance Jacobi brought to Lear’s madness was his terrific anger. Jacobi is so furious in the early scenes of the play that it brings the now-American sense of ‘mad’ as in ‘angry’ to the play. Being ‘beside oneself with anger’ is a meaning of ‘mad’ from c.1300, only thought of as an Americanism in the late eighteenth century.

And it is this anger – his temper, his tantrums – that made me think of Max from Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

After all, Max, like Lear, makes mischief, and – albeit in his imaginary world – is King of the Wild Things. The anarchy of his Wild Rumpus surely has a parallel with Lear’s storm. Isn’t Where the Wild Things Are, like Lear, about the creation and then dissolution of worlds?

As Jacobi is an old Lear, not far off his years of ‘fourscore and upward’ stipulated in the text, it seems particularly pertinent to think of him in relation to a child. Max’s madness, his mischief-making, his anarchic fun is so joyful. His chaos is celebratory – a wild rumpus – and when he’s had enough of it he can return home to comfort and normality. Lear’s is destructive and tragic, spiralling rapidly out of control. And Shakespeare denies a happy resolution, despite dangling it so tantalisingly with Cordelia’s return.

‘Old fools are babes again’, but I bet Lear wishes that his mischief, his madness, had only such brief and contained consequences as Max’s. If only he could go home again and find his supper waiting for him, still hot.

Perhaps most foolish of all was my Shakespeare tutor at university. At the end of a big, grand, black-tie dinner, which involved port and snuff and all those other Oxbridge trappings, we all retired for coffee and a game of charades. My tutor proceeded to enact the following clues:

Play.

Two words.

He draws a crown around his head.

He leers at each of us in a truly creepy way.

So we can comfort ourselves with the thought that at least Lear wasn’t leery in his old age, just mad.

 

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