13 February 2014
London/Invercargill

Two productions of King Lear in three weeks – one at the National Theatre in London and one in a park in rural New Zealand – prove the adage that all the world’s a stage.

I’ve had the good fortune to watch two very different productions of Shakespeare’s King Lear in the space of three weeks. One was a glossy, star-studded production at the National Theatre in London, directed by Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes, and starring English theatrical treasure Simon Russell Beale. The other was an amateur production by the local theatre group in my hometown of Invercargill for their annual Shakespeare In the Park festival, staged promenade-style among the trees, walkways and paddling pools of Queen’s Park. Despite its lustrous pedigree, I was rather bored by the National’s production – so much so that I didn’t bother blogging about it at the time. By contrast, the amateur production in my hometown was fresh, funny and surprisingly affecting, reminding me of how much I love the play, and reinvigorating the adage that all you need for theatre are a bunch of motley players and an audience who are keen to look and listen.

The Mendes production is the centrepiece of the National’s winter programme, and the entire season sold out within a couple of weeks. It’s one of those big, glossy, high-prestige productions that the National does rather well. Mendes sets the action in a vaguely futuristic looking totalitarian regime, with lots of hard gleaming metallic surfaces and shadowy film noir lighting, and Lear’s soldiers are all shaven-headed bruisers who wouldn’t look out of place in the SS or a production of Orwell’s 1984. Fascist costumery is so chic, after all, as any sex club in South London will also demonstrate. The staging, complete with booming thunder and storm effects and military gunfire, was very impressive, but at times threatened to swallow up the action.

While it was an interesting idea and works from an academic perspective – Lear’s brutality as a ruler filters down through his daughters and eventually turns to infect and destroy him – it never felt fully realised on stage. This felt largely due to the flat and overly cerebral way in which Mendes directs his performers. Though Mendes has great skill as a film director, his theatrical pieces roll out a very English middle-class notion of good taste that’s deadly in the execution. It’s efficiently staged and everyone speaks the verse prettily, but everything seems emotionally drained and physically dead from the chin down. The scene where Edgar leads Gloucester to his staged suicide, which should be heart-rending, was dull and unmoving. Even Edmund, one of my favourite Shakespearean villains, was disappointing, played in a shrill, one-note performance by an actor whose name I can’t remember. (In a weird twist of fate, the actor lost his voice mid-show a few days after the performance I saw, and had to be replaced by an understudy).

Simon Russell Beale is one of my favourite actors, and more or less guaranteed to elevate any play he’s in. His Lear feels about 20 years too early – the actor is only in his early 50s, and it’s a role usually tackled by much older actors. Then again, few would challenge the rightness of casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman a few years ago, so maybe it is better to let middle-aged actors tackle the big parts in case they don’t make it to retirement age.

Like Hoffman, Beale is an actor’s actor, a short chubby odd-looking character who transcends his physical ordinariness with magnificent technique, piercing intelligence and an unusual kind of charisma. Beale’s dormouse-like stature and tendency to slide into theatrical camp, which has served him beautifully playing Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time and any number of clowns, dissidents and scoundrels on stage, never quite gels in this production. As Lear, he blows and bellows and struts, sporting a long white garden gnome beard that makes him look like Mike Leigh, but he never manages to project the sense of majesty of kingliness that feels so critical a part of Lear’s DNA. His finest moments come in the final scenes as Lear, imprisoned, rediscovers his humanity. His reconciliation with Cordelia is especially moving.

In the preview performance I saw, some of the blocking seemed a bit under-rehearsed, leading to some unfortunate gaffes in the critical final scene. Mendes gives Lear the centre stage entrance, backlit, carrying Cordelia and crying “Howl! Howl! Howl!”, etc, which is fine – until Beale dumped Cordelia rather unceremoniously on a boardroom table in the middle of the stage, and laid her out like an autopsy specimen. Later, he picked her body up and lowered himself gingerly into a chair, clutching at her as she threatened to slip out of his grasp, like a bulging sack of potatoes. It was, inadvertently, quite funny, which dislodged the tone of what should be a heartbreaking scene. It wasn’t just Beale’s doing, though. Goneril and Regan (the otherwise excellent Kate Fleetwood and Anna Maxwell Martin) each had hammy, overly-thespy death scenes that were straight out of bad amateur dramatics and threw the scene into the realm of Acorn Antiques. By the time the dour, Northern-accented Kent slumps offstage to top himself and an anaemicly played Edgar signs off with the epilogue, I was feeling distinctly unmoved. But the audience applauded loudly and the critics have been rapturous with praise, leaving me feeling out of sorts. Was there some unifying vision to the piece that I missed? Or was it just the kind of well-made middle-class theatre that sits in the stomach like a plate of custard, comforting but ultimately too bland to be interesting?

Thank heavens, then, for the fabulous Angela Newell, who for years has been producing and directing Shakespeare in the Park in Southland every summer, and who is a one-woman force of nature for the arts in my hometown. This year Angela and her team produced a promenade production of King Lear. Rather than presenting the play entire, actors performed snippets of scenes in various locations around the park: a tapas plate of Shakespeare rather than a full three-course meal.

This fragmented approach has its limitations – you miss out on the driving force of the narrative, and unless you have a working knowledge of the play, it may be tricky to connect the dots between disparate scenes. What it does create is a delightful series of vignettes in which the audience can get up close and personal with the performers in a way not possible in a conventional stage setting.

With Ange as my tour guide, we started with Lear raging at the storm (“Vengeance! Plague! Death! Confusion!”), set wittily in the paddling pool in the children’s playground, with Lear squirted by water from a drinking fountain, while an assistant rattled an aluminium sheet to replicate thunder. From there we moved to the fight scene between Kent and Oswald, performed, hilariously, as a Punch and Judy show by two puppets with a penchant for salty ad libs. We turned a corner to find Lear lying under a tree stump, clutching the blue-lipped body of Cordelia in his arms. A woman sitting next to me on the grass wiped away a tear as Lear held a feather to Cordelia’s dead lips and cried “Break, heart; I prithee, break”; even a nearby duck paused and watched respectfully. “He’s a first time actor,” Ange said proudly. I assumed she meant the actor, not the duck.

Some levity was provided by a merry Fool, ducking and diving under a tree, before we headed down a walkway to come upon Gloucester, his eyes blinded and bloody, asking the way to Dover. In the shade of a tree, Goneril and Regan, dressed as characters from a Wilde comedy, take afternoon tea served by a butler and plan the strategic management of their errant father. And in an extraordinary piece of outdoor sculpture in the park called the Stumpery, five young actors play snippets of Edgar’s mad speech – the divided self made visible. “We’ve got a girl like that at school,” a schoolteacher friend of mine said ruefully, as we looked up to see a poor moppet sitting on an overhead branch, wailing “Poor Tom’s a cold” to herself.

There’s an improvisatory feel to proceedings that keeps things fresh and lively. The actors are like mechanical waxworks, cranking into life as audiences approach, but like any good busker, will perform their scene just as happily for one person as for twenty. Every actor was fresh and engaging, even after performing on rotation for an hour, and every line of dialogue was clearly delivered.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to live in London and go to the theatre regularly, and see a range of different performances of the same play. While I’m always happy to go and see the big guns blazing, the charm of Lear in the Park with Angela and her band of merry pranksters reminds me that theatre doesn’t need big sets or star power to be compelling and entertaining. Bravo one and all.

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