Saturday, August 01, 2009


I'm heading off to Edinburgh in a few days for my biennial fix of the Fringe.

But this year I have already treated myself to some theatre on my travels: I went to see King Lear at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre a couple of weeks ago - the day before my return to the UK. I'd only heard that it was on at a dinner party a day or two before. And the run was supposed to have ended, but had just been extended for another week or two. And I found myself able to buy what was supposedly the last unsold ticket for any of the performances that weekend (they were doing matinees and evening performances on both days - pretty exhausting!). So, I felt my luck was in, that Fate was goading me into attending - although, at $85, this was much the most I've ever spent on a trip to the theatre (most of my theatre-going, I reflect, has either been fairly inexpensive [student productions, festivals], or heavily discounted [e.g. via the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square], or FREE [comped by friends involved in the production, or paid for by my employer when I was a teacher accompanying school trips to Stratford & co.]; having to pay more than £10 or so for a show is an uncomfortable shock to the system; having to pay nearly £60 brought on palpitations!).

How was it?

Well, I liked Stacy Keach in the title role. He has the physical presence you need for such a grand role, and also an air of danger about him that reminds you what a scary mother****er Lear had been in his heyday (and still can be, on occasion); yet this image of an irascible old tyrant is mostly masked, softened by a great affability, charm, and humour. This Lear, despite his excesses, is very human, very likable. I found the earlier scenes, though, more compelling; the later descent into senility (and partial recovery at the end of the play?) is always difficult to bring off convincingly - and in this production there seemed to be greater emphasis on the power struggles of the daughters and their husbands than on Lear's degeneration.

Although I am in general rather wary of transposing Shakespeare to contemporary settings, the conceit of locating the action in a fragmenting early-90s Yugoslavia worked well here (except for the inevitable jarring incongruity of the repeated references to France, Cornwall, and Dover where we might have been expecting Greece, Serbia, and Dubrovnik); the casual cruelty and the naked greed for power of the Dark Ages is all too appropriately embodied in the petty warlords of the Balkans, a bunch of swaggering, uncouth, leather-jacketed gangsters.

The supporting parts were very well played too, but..... I found Robert Falls' direction just too loud and boisterous and gimmicky. There was too much humorous business going on (this is not a play where we want the mood to be lightened every few minutes). And whilst the frequent bursts of raucous Eastern European pop music underlined the setting and boosted the energy levels, this may have been a bit overdone. We certainly didn't need The Stones' Gimme Shelter at the beginning of the tempest scene - that was a cheap gag that achieved only bathos rather than pathos. Many details of the production became, for me, irksomely distracting - or, at least, shifted the emphasis away from Lear rather. It's a strange presentation of this play in which the figure of the King doesn't quite seem to be the main event. This seemed to be a rather trimmed down version as well: barely 3 hours' running time, even with all the additional bits of business. It's a long time since I've seen the play, but I think a full text production should run a lot longer than that. The 'mad scenes' (and the scenes with The Fool - though I'm less bothered about that), in particular, seemed much attenuated.

It was an imaginative and thought-provoking re-imagining of the great play, though; and Keach's Lear was very memorable. I'm glad I went. Even though it cost me an arm and a leg. And even though I had to forego the rival attraction of watching the denouement of Tom Watson's bid for the Open title at Turnberry - equally awe-inspiring, equally tragic!

This production of Lear was first staged by Chicago's Goodman Theatre a few years ago, and there are some good photographs of it on their website.

No comments: