Friday, February 15, 2013

Abbey Theatre, 'King Lear': The Weight of this Sad Time

Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Feb 12-Mar 23

My review of King Lear coming up just as soon as I'm not so young to love a woman for singing ...

I'm not the biggest Shakespeare fan. I can't say that I've enjoyed many productions of his plays (Corcadorcha's The Winter's Tale in 2011 is a shining exception). I find with 'the Bard' that the theatre is often turned into a primarily aural space, with an audience expected to focus on listening to language and rhythm. For me, theatre is visual.

My attitudes towards the dramatist changed when I first saw Edward Hall's excellent Propeller Theatre Company - an all-male Shakespeare company from England who have become a regular fixture at Galway Arts Festival. Propeller's productions are incredibly physical, bound with athletic choreography and musical composition. Irish directors of Shakespeare, in my experience, place too much trust in the simple delivery of the verse to entice an audience but the effect of this is more often than not superfluous. You're better off having an equally compelling physical score and constantly changing the arrangement of your stage.

Promising news it was then that Selina Cartmell was to direct King Lear. Cartmell has already had success with the Jacobean dramatist John Ford and directed his The Broken Heart in New York and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore in Dublin - the latter being an incredibly mobile and fluid production, staged with Cartmell's signature style of moving action with the perceptivity of a film camera.

Lear is set to abdicate his throne to whichever daughter "doth love us most". When the crushingly honest Cordelia professes to love him "according to my bond, no more nor less", Lear divides his kingdom among his remaining daughters, Goneril and Regan, who don't have their father's interests close to heart. Lear ultimately becomes a man dispossessed, left running out into a storm reflecting his own madness. Meanwhile, Lear's loyal earl Gloucester is subject to the manipulations of his vicious son Edmund. Defamed as the offspring of his father's adulterous crimes, Edmund harbors the same ugly sense of entitlement as Goneril and Regan and commits to driving off his brother Edgar, thus depriving him the world of prestige of which he is the legitimate inheritor. Lear and Edgar are both left to their "basest" forms, insane in the wilderness, desperate to retrieve their peace of mind.

What a commanding presence is Owen Roe in the role of Shakespeare's lacerated king, thunderously voiced, swelling with raw emotion. This production draws out Lear's masculine, boisterous side - the scene where he and his knights arrive at Goneril's castle is played to tomfoolery. Furthermore, it makes me like the male characters whom I previously didn't care all that much for, such as Kent, played honourably by Sean Campion, who adopts a thick Irish brogue whilst being disguised. Lorcan Cranitch plays Gloucester loyal and naive with a thin shroud of regret over him, hinting to the character's adulterous past.

The highlights of the evening for me were the scenes with Lear and the Fool. Hugh O'Connor is both hilarious and kind, and I love how Cartmell staged the scene where the Fool's riddles ("Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?") act to help Lear make sense of his crisis, and how she caught the refrain of Cordelia's "Nothing, my lord" with Conor Linehan's precious piano score.(*) This is not to put down the female performances, especially Caoilfhionn Dunne who is slithery and venomous as Regan.

(*) I think it's time for a campaign for Conor Linehan's music to be released. I particularly like the scores from the Corn Exchange shows, especially 'Freefall' and 'Dubliners'. 

There are some interesting things to be taken from the design. Garance Marneur's set,  providing an interior of a castle as if cast in the side of a mountain, doesn't suggest the wealth that you would expect in the homes of a royal family. In fact, the more I looked at it the more I felt that we were looking at some cavern lair of Poor Tom -  the frenzied, primitive persona of Edgar. Along with masks made from stag skulls worn by Lear's knights, and the presence (if underused) of two Irish wolfhounds, the imagery of nature is a priority here. It's as if Cartmell is dragging 'Man' down from his civilized heights and re-appropriating him as part of that heath from which he first came - naked and susceptible to the mysteries of the universe. Shakespeare has set out to interrogate our existential being, as Lear himself invites us to partake in such contemplation and "take upon us the mystery of things/As if we were God's spies". This production puts us in a place to do just that.

The final revelation of the night was how Cordelia's path - to be honest to herself and express her true state of mind - strikes a chord with recent discussions on communication and mental health. As Edgar's closing statements go:

"The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel , not what we ought to say."

Surprisingly relevant and, despite a flimsy fight scene and an underplayed performance or two, a very strong production from the Abbey Theatre. This tragic fall of Lear comes from a great height, the view from which will leave you full of questions and, prayingly, some wisdom to answer them.

What did everybody else think?

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