Sunday, 6 November 2016

The great Glenda Jackson in truly dreadful production of King Lear


I didn't think I'd ever get the chance to see Glenda Jackson in a theatre production. I was thrilled to learn she was returning to the stage to play King Lear, and duly bought a good ticket the moment they went on sale. Her Elizabeth 1st (on television) is so multi-faceted and strong it makes all the actresses who've performed it in her imperious wake look like am-dram school girls. I knew she had it in her to make a fine King Lear. She can convey a falling majesty and madness and a dirty humour and a sad old age. So I was disappointed that she chose to play it very much within herself (understandably at the age of 80). She needed to produce more power and poetry than she did, and she failed to connect with the supporting players. But for that I can't blame her. They were miscast. And she was let down by a production that was truly dreadful.
The set was a white bed sheet pinned to a frame. That's it. That's the whole set for the whole three-and-a-half-hour play. A truly dreadful all-been-done-before-many-many-many-times idea. Pathetic actually. An Emperor's New Clothes for the designer who hasn't got a clue. The costumes were mostly jeans and trainers.
The entire play was miscast. I couldn't believe in a single one of them. I did try fair and hard to suspend disbelief and make the necessary London Allowances for the P.C. and Celebrity, but there's only so much suspension of disbelief that one can do.
Every actor had a different accent, even those who were meant to be brothers and sisters (one of the actors changed his accent in every scene he was in). I didn''t believe that the brothers were brothers, that the sisters were sisters. I didn't believe they were married to or courted by the men they were married to. I didn't believe that any of the men held positions of rank or power. I didn't believe that the actor doing the eye-gouging had the nastiness within him to do the eye-gouging. I knew that the one Irish-accented actor in the play (and he suffered from cloth-in-mouth enunciation) would be the one to pull out a gun (IRA you see!). I didn't believe in a single action in the play.
The problem with using easy sub-Brechtian distancing devises to rob a play of its context is that it robs each line of its poetry, and each speech of its meaning, and each scene of rhythm, and the whole play of its strength - unless the new concept is truly eye-wateringly bold, brilliant AND apt (and it never is, though some of Ken Russell's opera productions got close).
Needless to say, that when you have a young actor in gym shorts playing jump a rope whilst holding forth on a long soliloquy, then the music of the words is lost, and the subtlety of the words and the scene within the context of the play and the events is lost. It was crap.
This truly was a bad bad production, every scene of which told me that the director, Deborah Warner, has no understanding of history, none of drama, and no understanding of music. No scene worked.
Of the non-Glenda cast, Rhys Ifans was impressive as The Fool, but he was beaten by having to wear a silly Superman costume that he couldn't escape from. He ended his turn slumped in a supermarket trolley. I remember Johnny Vegas doing that in a circus tent at the Edinburgh Festival in 1986, a boring old idea then, but Vegas's comedy show had more insight and more profundity than Warner's King Lear.

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