"The wrong kind of Madness"
by Jim Kelly on 25/02/09

So far as I can tell from Kenneth Tynan's diaries and collected reviews he never saw a performance of King Lear he actually enjoyed. Even Olivier at the apotheosis of his fame lacked 'intrinsic majesty' when he played the lead in 1946. Tynan's lack of enjoyment in watching King Lear, and indeed most of Shakespeare's plays (as opposed to the pleasure he took in reading them), can probably be understood by most contemporary theatregoers. Nobody today watches the Shakespearean blockbusters without a fairly developed preconception of how each should be performed. And what you end up seeing never measures up.

For directors and actors, the audiences' focus on their performances (rather than the plot) offers the potential for both disproportionate adulation and equally unwarranted opprobrium. Treading the line between new interpretations and fulfilling the audience's expectations is notoriously tough and the result is that many productions seem more like auditions than realised interpretations of the texts. The boldest interpretations often run alongside the safest performances. Should you mortally offend a critic's vision of the Bard, you can attract some serious animus, as this production did when it opened in Liverpool last November.

Reviewers of the first performance have already written at length about Rupert Goold's uneven and muddled direction. Much of what was considered especially egregious (for example the use of Margaret Thatcher's Assisi speech to open the play) has now been jettisoned - which is not to say that all the problems have been fixed. This production remains an incredibly inventive effort, with many flashes of brilliance - an unforgettably gruesome blinding scene, for instance, or Goneril's invented pregnancy and childbirth, which both complicates the succession plot and distinguishes her forcefully from Regan (an extravagantly lascivious performance by Charlotte Randle, like many of the cast she wavers uncomfortably between strident and overblown). I'm also fond of the St George's crosses daubed onto the faces' of Lear's train, a smart 'hyperreal' expression of allegiance that masks their underlying bad faith.

Even so there are still too many different ideas, and though they often work on their own terms, as a whole the play seems incoherent. Thus we have professional soldiers and paramilitary terrorists jostling for stage-time, only for Edgar and Edmund to duel to the death with plastic swords. (I have no idea why: suggestions welcome.) Meanwhile the setting, vague to the point of incoherence, incorporates several scenes inside a potting shed, which works well for a single joke involving a flowerpot, but otherwise seems flippant. Equally pointless are the occasional uses of microphones, videos and other paraphernalia dropped in without explanation and rarely revisited. Lear wears a dress for much of the second half of the play without any forewarning gesture in the first half. Edmund wins laughs during his death speech when he really shouldn't. Worst is the amount of crotch and box fondling which plunges to its nadir when Gloucester begs to kiss Lear's hand after a spot of regal onanism.

At the centre of all this Postlewaite's Lear wanders blearily, the entelechy of his disintegration evident from the moment he shuffles onto stage. I doubt Lear has ever been performed in quite this way, almost droopily, with the sense of his authority disappearing into abeyance within the first few lines. Confused, distracted, scarcely aware of his situation, even Lear's anger is pathetic, collapsing in on itself like that of a drunk arguing with a one-armed bandit.

All of which has the curious effect of rendering the rest of the cast players in the fugue of Lear's obliterated mind; they scheme, they fight, they lust but their performances seem to carry no weight. Neither Forbes Masson's Fool nor Nigel Cooke's Kent can stay angry; Jonjo O'Neill's Edmund loses his impertinent edge with nothing to rebel against. And Lear never recovers, he never wins any overdue self-knowledge. Instead the King almost playfully uses Cordelia's limp hands to point at his former subjects. Like much of the rest of the production it's a clever, disorientating touch but ultimately one that distances the audience, asking them to cogitate when they should be invited to feel.

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