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A CurtainUp London London Review
King Lear

Which of you shall we say loves us most?— Lear
King Lear
Amanda Hale as Cordelia and Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear
(Photo: Stephen Vaughan)
Rupert Gould is a star director so it was with surprise that some of the notices his King Lear merited at the Liverpool Everyman in November last year seemed disappointing. This production, but with some reworking, has re-opened at London's Young Vic.

I have to come clean and say that of Shakespeare's major plays, King Lear is the one I find least appealing and least rewarding. In fact I seriously contemplated giving up going to see this thinking maybe I had seen Lears enough for one lifetime. So how did I find Gould's latest version? There was much I liked in this rather lengthy production with two intervals coming in at just under four hours on press night. The seats at the Young Vic are only slightly more comfortable than those wooden planks at The Globe but the standard of plays usually more than makes up for this.

I really liked Giles Cadle's wide stone steps, with weeds growing between the slabs and in cracks, which form the playing area. To the rear the weather clouds roll and darken in black and white. These steps allow action on them up and down and space the characters so we can see them all clearly. In times of war actors run up and down creating the turmoil of battle. They also represent a kingdom that is in need of maintenance and care. Gould drops into his production curiosities, paper hats for the players, plastic swords for Edgar and Edmund, a clerical dog collar for Kent (Nigel Cooke), a microphone for Lear (Pete Postlewaite) who starts to sing "My Way" during the carving up of the kingdom in favour of his daughters, more like karaoke than serious politics.

Goneril (Caroline Faber) is heavy with child as she flatters her father like a Miss World contestant delivering her speech "no less than life" she claims she loves him. Immediately what is apparent is the rivalry between her and the middle daughter Regan (Charlotte Randle), " In my true heart/ I find she names my very deed of love;/Only she comes too short ". Cordelia (Amanda Hale) declines the contest. Pete Postlethwaite as Lear has no regal bearing. He is more a self made millionaire builder or owner of a chain of off licences with no wife to help him with his daughters. He really is a terrible house guest and at this point in the play we feel some sympathy for Goneril coping with Lear's entourage of George Cross face painted football rowdies.

Amanda Hale's Cordelia is a strength with her sentiment free youngest daughter making the final hospitalized scene less mawkish and rather natural. I liked too Tobias Menzies as Edgar and Poor Tom as he looks after his father Gloucester, a strong performance from John Shrapnel. Poor Tom gives us a brief light hearted moment when he snorts as if he is turning into a pig. Gloucester's blinding, as Regan sucks out his eye, later spitting it out, had one member of the audience so horrified, he fainted. In between scenes, there are the clouds on the horizon backdrop and loud drumming full of momentum. Later when at war, we hear the helicopters circling in anticipation of the battle. A gradual total eclipse of the sun casts more darkness towards the end of the play.

Postlewaite may not be very regal but cast out by both inheriting daughters he is full of vulnerability. During the storm scene he uses a microphone to be heard above the sound, both of the storm and of Goneril giving birth, who later appears with a pram and a submachine gun. Gould gives Lear a floral patterned frock and a parasol for the final scenes, incongruous and undignified as is the meeting with blind Gloucester when Gloucester asks to take Lear's hand which the king has just used to masturbate. Forbes Masson's Fool works hard for his living using his beautiful singing voice but the wit of the Fool is all too often subsumed. As the sisters fight over their lover, Edmund, a rather affable rather than malicious Johnjo O'Neill, a backdrop of crows take flight and a single crow lands, a harbinger of death. Lear is a small figure in his humble hospital bed asking Cordelia to forgive him.

Gould has emphasized Regan's sadistic nymphomania and sexual rivalry with her sister Goneril which is brought out in the closing scenes. Regan seems to equate sex and violence. Goneril watches shaking uncontrollably as Edgar in a Union Jack jousting helmet challenges and defeats Edmund. This production of King Lear is stuffed full of ideas and themes of civil war, sex and death but lacks cohesion as does the realm and that disintegration may be Gould's point.

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rupert Gould

Starring: Pete Postlethwaite, Caroline Faber, Amanda Hale, Charlotte Randle, John Shrapnel, Tobias Menzies, Forbes Masson, Johnjo O'Neil
With: Jacob Anderson, Peter Bramhill, Michael Colgan, Nigel Cooke, John-Paul MacLeod, Christopher Middleton, Clarence Smith
Set Design: Giles Cadle
Costume Design: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Composition and Sound Design: Adam Cork
Video: Lorna Heavey
Movement: Georgina Lamb
Producers: Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Headlong Theatre and the Young Vic
Running time: Three hours 50 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 28th March 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th February 2009 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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