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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Gods Weep

I'm going to rip Catherine to shreds. Beat I'm telling you this because you're either with me or against me. If you're with me I'll make you rich. But now you'll know what I'm going to do, so if you're against me I'll have to tear you to pieces too. Are you with me or against me? — Richard
The Gods Weep
Jeremy Irons as Colm (Photo: Keith Pattison)
I have really liked Dennis Kelly's previous plays so it was with anticipation that I looked forward to The Gods Weep, his new version of King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company premiering at Hampstead Theatre in London. In addition the script has attracted Jeremy Irons into the lead role. I saw several critics before the performance clutching the weighty text and nervously asking what length the play might me. A cheery press representative told us that The Gods Weep had been running at over four hours before previews and was now down to a manageable two hours 50 minutes. A wag suggested that if we delayed seeing it for a week it might last a mere 45 minutes!

The Gods Weep seems more like three plays than one. The first section is set in the world of the corporate boardroom, full of greedy, thrusting, ballsy executives. Chairman, Colm (Jeremy Irons) is diving up his corporate empire. His first action is to deprive his son Jimmy (Luke Norris) of control of the company's operations in Belize where a civil war is pending. Colm will be backed by his henchman, Castile (John Stahl) but will jointly allocate his empire to Catherine (Helen Schlesinger) and Richard (Jonathan Slinger). Those who know Lear will start to draw the parallels which is about as much fun as this plays gets. There is lots of swearing and vicious behaviour from the capitalists with Helen Schlesinger playing the hardest ball of all and with her co-leader Richard seeming more than a little disturbed psychologically.

The second section of the play is various war scenes played out by the same chief executives but now dressed in army camouflage combat gear and carrying rifles. Richard will consult his astrologer (Karen Archer) for guidance about what to do next making me momentarily feel I might be in Macbeth rather than Lear and that the astrologer is the modern equivalent of the predicting witches. The final section, after the interval, is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Colm and Barbara (Joanna Horton) the daughter of his enemy Ken, whom he totally destroyed, are trying to survive in a makeshift tent. This section lasts about an hour and a half, which is about an hour too long.

There are long descriptive speeches beautifully spoken by Jeremy Irons as Colm. He retells his dreams or memories of his past which are listened to politely by his friend Castile or in the final scene where he examines the remains of the natural world he and Barbara find themselves in.

Set in the round, there are times acoustically when an actor has his back to you and I could not hear unless I strained forward. The set is a semi circular concrete wall with a real tree in front but a brilliant set couldn't lift this play.

There are some good performances from the very vicious Helen Schlesinger's Catherine and Jonathan Slinger's weird and creepy, Richard against the commonsense of John Stahl's loyal Castile. I liked too Joanna Horton's coping survivor Barbara who is unaware of the terrible things Colm did to her family. Sartorially Colm descends from his designer suit to pajamas, an umbrella made of leaves and twigs useless in the storm scene.

I enjoyed some of the hard hitting company executive scenes where I was shocked by the violence of competition and wondered whether they really do speak to each other like that with no fear of being taken to task for bullying behaviour. The Gods Weep is very ambitious but badly in need of a good literary editor. At the moment it could be renamed The Critics Weep.

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The Gods Weep
Written by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Maria Aberg

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Helen Schlesinger, Jonathan Slinger, John Stahl
With: Niki Amuka-Bird, Karen Archer, Neal Barry, Babou Ceesay, Sam Hazeldine, Joanna Horton, Luke Norris, Sally Orrock, Laurence Spellman, Matthew Wilson
Design: Naomi Dawson
Lighting Designer: David Holmes
Sound: Carolyn Downing
Movement: Ayse Tashkiran
Fights: Malcolm Ranson
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 3rd April 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 17th March 2010 performances at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU (Tube: Swiss Cottage)

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