Review: King Lear ~ theatre notes

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Review: King Lear

King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Brian Lipson. Set design by Noami Wong, costumes by Jessica Daly, lighting design by Tom Willis, A/V design by Martyn Coutts. With Ben Hjorth, Celia Mitchell, Julia Markowski, Joanne Trentini, Brendan McCallum, Anthony Winnick, Gerard Lane, Cameron Moore, Brett Christian, Stuart Bowden, Tim Ross and Grant Foulkes. Victorian College of the Arts Company 2007 @ Space 28, 28 Dodds St, Southbank until November 6. Bookings: online or 9685 9234

A student production of King Lear is the sort of prospect that generally makes a critic mutter hasty excuses and flee for the exit. I can’t think of a play less hospitable to youthfulness and more likely to expose its performers to the consequences of biting off more than they can chew. One has premonitions of adhesive beards, overblown gestures and a general sensation of creeping embarrassment and boredom.

But a VCA student production directed by Brian Lipson is another thing altogether. VCA shows are always worth a look – they have the resources, human, imaginative and material, to mount ambitious theatrical experiments that are impossible in other venues. It's worth noting here that in repertoire with the Lear season are productions of Ibsen’s A Doll House, directed by Daniel Schlusser, and Yes, adapted from the film by Sally Potter and directed by Tanya Gerstle. I can't make Yes, and won't see A Doll's House until Saturday, so I'm alerting you now: if you miss them, don't blame me.

When I saw that Lipson had chosen to direct this play for Company 2007, I was consumed by curiosity. Whether it worked or not, it was sure to be interesting: Lipson is one of the most restlessly intelligent theatrical imaginations in this country, and his VCA production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker was one of my highlights of 2006. And while I don’t think this production quite reached the dizzy heights of The Skriker, it was pretty damned impressive. In terms of liveliness, humour, imagination, passion and – perhaps most interestingly – fidelity to the text, it beat the much hyped RSC production hollow, and at a tenth of the price.

Lipson’s conceit is to stage King Lear as a drama of contemporary celebrity culture. As he says in his director’s notes, noting the premiere of King Lear before James I in 1603, “the very public nature of the humiliations of Cordelia, Kent and Lear in the early part of the play remind me strongly of the kind of thing that happens so publicly nowadays in a TV show like Jerry Springer or Judge Judy. In addition, most of the characters in King Lear would have been perceived by their first audience as ‘celebrities’.… There is a strong element of schadenfreude in seeing the glamorous disgrace themselves that is not normally apparent in modern productions.”

As Bell Shakespeare has demonstrated so often, it is wise to be cautious about contemporising Shakespeare: it seldom works. The usual effect is to jam contemporary “relevance” uncomfortably onto the text, like an ill-fitting suit that gets more and more crumpled as the play winds up to its climax. One that indutibly works is Richard Eyre’s Richard III, starring Ian McKellen, in which the action is transposed to a fantasy 1930s Fascist Britain: the metaphor is at once loose and profound enough to escape the trap of literalness. In some ways, King Lear reminded me of that adaptation, but here the metaphor goes deeper, into the nature of performance and spectacle itself.

Lipson has elected to perform the entire text (it’s usually judiciously edited for performance), with brief intervals between the five acts. Aside from making this a long evening (four and a half hours), it makes you very aware of the structure of the play, and changes its focus and balance: minor characters and incidents are given more emphasis, and the texture of the play is much more various. One interesting aspect is that the double narrative of family betrayal is foregrounded. Edmund (Tim Ross) is visible on stage for the entire play; when he is not performing, he sits slumped at a table on the end stage, a sinisterly glamorous avatar over the action. Lipson’s endlessly imaginative direction, which surely uses every inch of Space 28 (and quite a lot of the space outside the theatre), gives this extra complexity vivid life. By the end of this densely-textured, intriguing production, I felt I had really seen the play.

When you enter the theatre, it’s decked out as if for an awards ceremony. It’s filled with circular tables, each with a table-cloth and speccy centrepiece – a triangle representing the kingdom – decked with candles. At one end is a stage, on which are more tables, and a microphone. A man with a digital camera roams the room, videoing audience members and actors in the dressing rooms. Their images are projected onto huge screens either side of the space. There’s a bar to the side where you can buy wine. The protagonists are formally dressed “celebrities”, and enter like stars coming up the red carpet, with the video our voyeur, practically peering up their noses.

Lear's (Ben Hjorth) division of his kingdom between his daughters is performed as an Oscar acceptance speech, with Goneril (Celia Mitchell) and Regan (Julia Markowski) unfolding pre-prepared speeches. But when Cordelia (Joanne Trentini) refuses to play the game, the action moves off the stage and into the audience: Lear’s angry vanity, played with icy restraint by Hjorth, is here driven by public embarrassment.

This awareness of lives played out in the public gaze is highlighted through the first two acts: the audience is, like the servants and other lowly denizens of the kingdom, fascinated spectators of the downfall of the powerful. (One remembers that in the French court, the public was able to watch royalty dress and eat: their most private moments were open to the public gaze). But gradually the stage is dismantled, until – after a 10-minute interval counted down electronically on the hanging screens – by the third act we are back in a theatre, ranged around three sides of a huge empty space, on which are played out the private outcomes of these earlier public actions. For Act V, the public sorting out of the battles, alarums and intrigues of the previous four, we are back at the tables.

This constant shifting of perspective makes the production fascinating: the action might erupt from beneath your table, or around it, or move outdoors, or overhead among the lights, or in mercilessly intimate close-up on the screens. You can never escape the fact that you are witnessing an act of theatre, a thing of artifice and invention, of masking and unmasking. One convention I especially liked was how actors used the microphone when making asides, stepping out of the imagined reality of the scene and speaking their amplified confidences to the audience.

But how did the play fare through this intricate web of alienation and intimacy? Remarkably well, I thought: the play preserves its tragedy and power. Lear’s appearance with the hanged Cordelia in Act V is a coup de theatre. The unwatchable scene of atrocity when Gloucester’s (Brett Christian’s) eyes are plucked out by Cornwall (Anthony Winnick) was genuinely horrific. In their night attire – luxurious red dressing gown and silky red nightie – Cornwall and Regan (Julia Markowski) are the image of empty, privileged amorality. For them, the transgression of mutilating their host is exciting, hilarious, sexually arousing. The act itself, performed with a spoon that Regan has been using to eat a dainty dessert out of a glass, is brilliant grande guignol, but Gloucester’s scream goes to the heart.

There were longeuers – surprisingly few, however, and mostly in Act IV. And not everything worked: the storm scene. effectively sounded by the Fool (Cameron Moore) at the microphone as ear-splitting beat box effects, suffered from its amplification: at that point for me it was very important to know exactly where Lear was in the theatre, and for a short time I actually thought his lines were being said by the Fool (bold, I thought, in a puzzled fashion, until I tracked Lear down…)

The performances demonstrate the talents, skills and energies of this VCA intake: there’s no moment where you wince and wish for a “proper” cast. I was particularly impressed by Cameron Moore as the Fool – a remarkable performance – Brett Christian’s authoritative Gloucester, Tim Ross’s elegantly predatory Edmund and Joanne Trentini’s interestingly martial (and certainly not low-voiced) Cordelia.

Ben Hjorth was on a hiding to nothing in the role of Lear, which is frankly an impossible ask: age is something no talent can fake. That he pulls it off creditably, in a performance strong on restraint and intelligence, is a considerable tribute; that he manages to generate scenes of real feeling and a moment – the first speech where he pleads not to go mad – where I went cold with sudden, prescient horror, is more than that. It will probably be worth waiting the four decades or so until he’s actually old enough to do the role.

Picture: Ben Hjorth as Lear. Photo: Jeff Busby


On Stage And Walls said...

The first Lear I ever saw was John Gaden who was, I think, not 30 at the time.
I hear A Doll's House is very startling production-wise.

Alison Croggon said...

Very startling? Can't wait!

Gaden must have been interesting. But age is still not just about appearance... it's all those other things, the wrinkles of the mind (I have plenty of those).

On Stage And Walls said...

Oh for sure, just like an Othello doesn't have to be black or a soprano doesn't have to really be 15 year old Japanese virgin. The first actor to play Lear in Australia was about 30 and was so hopeless the Cordelia started laughing in final scene. I'm quite looking forward to this Lear, three Lears in as many years is a good thing for Melbourne.

Anonymous said...

Saw Lear last night and although I usually agree with your reflections Alison this time I don't. To me it was a concept looking for a play which except for the opening it did not work. Seeing Ben play lear reminded me of Barry Koskie's version in 1987 at Melbourne University but this production did not need teh "intrusion" of contemporary culture to work. I was also put off by the audience who were I noted many of hte other part of hte 2007 company. So much of hte stage banter seemed to be in jokes with their classmates and when audience reaction becomes part of the performance - and it seemed strained - I'm not sure what hte benefit is.

I was thinking as I left the theatre that I hope this is not their only chowcase as they leave the VCA.

Alison Croggon said...

HI Scott - thanks for your comment. I spoke to somebody else today who had problems with it (they went opening night), so it could be that it's a question of different nights - I think Company 2007 were busy performing their own plays the night I went. (Strangely, it was a blogger night - quite a few turned up - any comments, guys? You Know Who You Are...) I love this play, and know it probably best of all Shakespeare's work, and went along prepared to be, well, perhaps - even probably - disappointed. And it worked for me. I thought the contemporary metaphor was lightly done, so it focused on celebrity as theatricality, and when the conventions changed in Acts III and IV, and we were just in a bare theatre, I was happy to go with it. It certainly held me there for all that time, with very few moments of drifting off. Risky stuff, though, without question.

Anonymous said...

Thoughts on all three coming...when, next week? Yeah, next week, say.

I think both Lear and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Dollhouse have both been really good. The performances in the former are certainly stronger.

Oddly, Alison, I really liked the storm sequence; that it was physically hard to take actually really did it for me.

I noticed that (your) Ben didn't like that bit at all...

Alison Croggon said...

Look forward to them, Matt.

As for the storm scene... it was okaaay... says Ben. Too loud. But, sophisticated theatre goer that he is by now, he took pre-emptive action and stuck his fingers in his ears. I liked the scene, actually, but I did have that confusion, and it was a problem for me.

I saw A Doll's House this afternoon. I liked it a lot.

Anonymous said...

I keep swinging between the feeling that I preferred Lear to Dollhouse (as they've titled it here) and vice versa. Thing is, were they not both VCA productions, I probably wouldn't be comparing them at all. (Though obviously they're both flogging the dead horse -- or dood paard, so to speak -- if you like that euphemism for reworking the classics.)

Certainly I thought the theatre of Dollhouse was outstanding; I'm wasn't so sure about the performances (Ben Pfeiffer excluded -- I think he was excellent here, as he has been all year). Regardless, I don't think it quite sustains its energy to the end (but, then, did Lear?); the last fifteen minutes or so failed to live up to the earlier scenes (wasn't the Christmas sequence wonderful-terrible-messy stuff?).

I'm kind of dreading Yes; I think the notion that the film could be done as theatre betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the the work (namely, that its power is purely text-based and, therefore, easily adaptable to the theatre). But I might eat my words yet, which would be nice.

Anyway, a big, long review next week!

Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew,

Just in response to your previsioning of Yes... don't dread. I may be of Co 2007, but having not seen the film, I must say that the experience of seeing Tanya's rendition left me thinking how... i don't know... pure it was within theatrical dress.

The poetry, the sweep of it, the sheer struggle between the mystical and the rational at its heart, and its clean unaffected staging left me glad to have not seen the film before seeing this production.

Though I would have liked to have actually seen more of Co 2007 in it, I couldn't fault the work of any involved. Ella and Grant left me transfixed.

It's a shame to hear that you can't make Yes, Alison, are you sure you can't move something around for it?


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Brendan - thanks for letting us know about Yes, it sounds beautiful. But no, I really can't get there. I really can't cover everything I would like to.

Anonymous said...

Fair call, Alison. Of course you don't have a thousand eyes and hours for every day.

Anonymous said...

I saw it last night. General assessment: self-indulgent. An over-use of space - way too much running about - and an over-reliance on devices, such as the video camera. All very interesting but they detracted from the performance. I actually felt a bit sorry for the performers. I hope they have had other opportunities to show case their talents. Julia Markowski and Cameron Moore were the standout performers, but really I didn't care about any of the characters. And the audio was terrible: too loud, and there was a persistent buzz. It was a very long night.

Anonymous said...

As a person who didn't understand more than 200 words in the entire performance, I thought it was wonderful. Not a single moment of boredom for me there. But the most interesting Shakespeare for me is done by non-Anglophones, because they make cuts and translate. Even Yes, tonight, kept every single one of the words and messed only with the visuals. By now I think this absolute, heart-wrenching worship of the text may be an Anglo thing altogether (not just faithfulness to the text that belongs to this language). This is certainly a very word-focused culture: Mediterranean people would probably consider the visuals to be of equal importance to the integrity of the play.

I may be openly inviting sticks and stones my way now, but I'm not insanely attracted to a Shakespeare uncut, integral and with all the words kept. The effort required to break through the surface of the language for me kills the joy of what may be found. But then, you know, I'm not used to more than two acts in a row either. I think Melbourne is urbanistically not suitable for that. No place to get food, public transport issues, every bar closed once you come out (which means no post-show discussion)...

Alison Croggon said...

Surely there are bars open, even on a Tuesday??

We won't throw any sticks your way, Jana; but it's actually very rare for Shakespeare to be done uncut. (And did you see A Doll's House?)

Anonymous said...

Not on a Tuesday at 23:30. And if you wanted to eat, you'd have to get yourself to Lygon Street. And then, obviously, miss the last tram home. You can read social history from the public transport timetable in this city. It's a timetable that assumes everyone goes home, after, work, has dinner, watched TV, and goes to bed. (In Portugal, goodness, my friends and their families would go out for dinner every night, at about 11pm! Public transport ran very differently.)

I am incredibly sad I missed Ibsen, but it had to happen. Your review sounded really intriguing, and I've read and liked Ibsen already (despite being warned that he was political rather than psychologically incisive), but never seen. I particularly like your idea that the same effect requires different solutions (in form and content) in different times. I loved Yes; even with Ibsen missed, I thought it was a remarkably strong week of theatre.