Review: King Lear ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Review: King Lear

If one is an actor, a bare stage must be the most perilous place in the world: it leaves nowhere to hide. In last year's STC production of The War of the Roses, Benedict Andrews showed how this most naked of spaces can act as a burning glass, amplifying language and performance to a charring intensity. But exposure can equally reveal poverty: and sadly, this is mostly what happens in Bell Shakespeare's King Lear.

It's never comfortable reviewing a company when you suspect it is not at its best. After 75 performances around the country, Bell's Lear limped into town last week minus one of its key actors, Leah Purcell, who was forced to pull out two days before the Melbourne premiere. Instead, the part of Regan was played by Rachel Gordon, flown in the day before. Reading from the script, Gordon gave a most creditable performance, but the disruption must have had an impact. I got the feeling I was watching a tired production.

It's easy to see the ambition of Marion Potts' concept. This Lear is almost depopulated: isolated figures play across Dale Ferguson's starkly minimal stage, which features a small revolve in its centre, with a silver backdrop that looks like a screen of mist. Courtly pomp is represented by a suspended marquee above the revolve, a stylised crown that lifts out of sight as Lear divests himself of his kingly power. The simplicity is highlighted by the presence of Bree van Reyk playing her percussive score live on stage.

It's a cold stage, emphasised by Nick Schlieper's pitilessly revealing lighting and the furs which drape each character. At times it functions almost like a screen: there are hints here of painting and film, with visual references from Brueghel and Bergman. The frame is all there: what's missing is not so much the play itself - we hear every word - as the passions which inhabit its freezing void. Shakespeare's Lear is a terrifying portrait of human beings at the mercy of bestial forces in an indifferent and godless universe, and here we're missing at least half of the equation.

The furs and chill can't but recall Peter Brook's film of Lear, which stars Paul Scofield in a bleak, snowy landscape that evokes the existential desolation of Beckett. And the comparison unkindly shows what this production lacks: where Scofield's masterly performance maps the clashing forces - the pride and brokenness, the fierce will and the anarchic madness - of a king who is only, after all, a man, Bell gives us a journeyman's sketch of the soul.

Physically Bell looks the part, and there's nothing wrong with his bodily presence on stage: the problem is all in the language. Shakespeare's text is merely delivered, with a repetitive cadence that encloses the verse rather than opening it into the universe of human feeling. It seems astounding, but not one of Lear's harrowing speeches evoked a single responsive emotion: not the storm scene, nor the heart-rending reunion with his daughter, nor any of his tormented abjurations against madness; most notably not his anguished recognition of his own blindness, in which at last he sees humanity in its naked state.

With no Lear at the centre, the production inevitably splinters. It's left to Peter Carroll as the Fool to show what might have been. The Fool is Lear's other self, his conscience and his confidant; it's no accident that he disappears after the storm scene, when Lear is finally reunited, through his suffering, with himself. Carroll's performance is the most lucid I have seen of this opaque and tragic character: he is at once frail and fearless, comic and heart-breakingly poignant. Most of all, he brings multiple levels of light and shade to his performance, creating a rippling depth that fills the stage's cold emptiness. The show's worth seeing for Carroll alone.

The rest of the cast sits mainly between these extremes, with solid performances from Yalin Ozucelik as Oswald, Bruce Myles as Gloucester, Paul English as the Duke of Albany, Jane Montogomery Griffiths as Goneril and John McConville as Edgar. But for all their efforts, the production is ultimately no more than a competent reading of the play: not a harrowing of the soul, so much as a polite introduction to the idea that a soul might be harrowed.

Picture: Peter Carroll (left) and John Bell in King Lear.

King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Designed by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, sound design by Stefan Gregory, composition by Bree van Reyk. With John Bell, Jane Montgomery-Griffiths, Rachel Gordon, Susan Prior, Peter Kowitz, Peter Carroll, Josh McConville, Tim Walter, Paul English, Anthony Phelan, Yalin Ozucelik, Keith Agius and Justin Stewart Cotta. Bell Shakespeare @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until June 12. Her Majesty's Theatre, Perth, June 18-26.


Borbs said...

Great review! The show was utterly uninspiring. I don't often walk out of shows, but I did. Dull, dull, dull.

Kim said...

"Shakespeare's text is merely delivered, with a repetitive cadence that encloses the verse rather than opening it into the universe of human feeling."

That pretty well describes my response to John Bell's performance when I saw him play Lear in Kosky's production in 1998 and the reason why I had no intention of seeing this version, even if it is my favourite Shakespeare.

Anonymous said...

Most interesting, most interesting - this was my first Lear, so I didn't quite know what to make of it. I was really looking forward to it, but came out disappointed. I did get shivers down my spine when he dragged his daughter out at the end, but that's probably more to do with the story (of which I knew nothing of) than anything else.

Anyways, as I'm never going to get around to reviewing it, I'll put the one-liner I've been saving up for it here: "Bell Shakespeare's new version of King Lear is like watching a microwave defrost".

Fantastic program, though.

Jenny said...

I saw the show fairly early in the Sydney season and the night I saw the show Mr Bell was dropping the energy at the end of every 2nd or 3rd line.

It was most noticable in the division of the kingdom scene where it reduced his exploding rage into a kind of mild irritation. After that the play really had nowhere to go - or is it 'no reason to go anywhere'.

I thought the blocking of the opening also rather peculiar. It seemed a series of unmotivated moves disconnected from any living intention.

Did anyone else feel that the percussion underscoring suggested a lack of trust in the text's ability to affect the audience? There were moments I found it very intrusive.

Anonymous said...

One must ask the question; how many thousands of people has Bell Shakespeare successfully turned off the classics for life?

It's extremely concerning they receive the lion's share of funds and attention to stage and tour the classics when, as a company, they have such a lack of imagination.

This country needs a new voice in Shakespeare - Not The Bell Shakespeare Company perhaps?

google is the bible said...

Yes, but their ability to do this, with very slight public funding raises questions about whether anyone actually gives a toss about william anyway. After all, those corporate sponsors are paying for a product. That product is an opportunity. That opportunity is to meet their target market. Thus, the idea that 'turning people on' to Shakespeare is somewhat irrelevant in the case of Shakespeare. Is it not the case that we all studied the 'bard' at school?

So, question. If we are turning people off Shakespeare, then does this mean we are turning them towards other theatre?

Also, if this isn't an exercise (the Bell Shakespeare Company) in artistic endeavour, then who cares? They sell their tickets and support artists, freeing up cash for other 'artists' (who can try and 'turn on audience' to their work), whilst filling the remit of those awesome educational bodies who insist that all teenagers must sit around in stuffy classrooms being told that 'the Bard' is the greatest writer in the history of mankind.

That is a dead argument, and those who protect this dudes image as the greatest, those who perpetuate this cycle of artistic poverty/poverty of imagination/cowardice in programming/lowest common denominator artspeak are merely puppets of the great unwashed, those for whom having an individual voice is punishable by poverty.

In three hundred years there will be those who still maintain that Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece, distinguishable from others for''s...

well it's what?

To speak of Shakespeare in regards to 'turning off' generations - as a way of saying that Shakespeare deserves absolute adulation, is akin to saying Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece without saying why.

Why is it important to turn audiences on to Shakespeare? Because the writings of this author are still relevant today? Yes well so is the hosting of mainstream television comedy writing. Because Shakespeare is of the canon of great literature? yes, much like the Bible?

It is akin to saying Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece without stating why. Why? One reason is that like all formative artists, or those who lead the way (ie; seminal, read semen, read first, read patriarchy...) he chenged our perceptions of what theatre writing could be. It is not so much the idea of the play that matters, it is the idea of its time and place.

The recent review by that learned reviewer Cameron Woodhead, stated something along the lines of "but it is no Beckett".

The above conceit I have ullustrated shows that for every mighty brain cell the world throws at upholding The Bard, they lack an equal and opposite brain cell in actually thinking for themselves.

Me? If I could make a crap load of cash, without having to pay the rights to something, and without asking for govt cash, I'd do it. If I could further suck some cash from corporate pig dogs to make it happen, I'd do it. If I could sell my product into a marketplace that in essence has a state sanctioned directive to teach our children about THE GREATEST DEAD WRITER IN ENGLISH OF ALL TIME then good on them. If I was a teacher and could get everything done real easy, basically with a couple of phone calls, I'd do it. If I was a parent, I would love it, because the bard doesn't actually swear, he only says stuff like "rouse her with my fingering".

So good one Bell. I saw one show, Atheneum in 98, that was enough for me. But it's not me they're selling this crap too. It's the suckers like you without any context for saying such stuff.

Google is The Bible xoxo

Alison Croggon said...

But did that experience turn you off Shakespeare? Certainly it reads like a formative experience.

my burning ring of fire said...

ha ha.
yes absolutely formative.
for once I actually got a story from the damn stuff :)