I confess: despite loving Shakespeare, I had never really “got” Lear before. I know, it’s supposed to be the greatest of the four great Shakespearean tragedies. But it never connected with me viscerally the way the others do – I never got that feeling that, hey that could be me out there behaving like that.
Until last night. The Royal Shakespeare Company played Lear at the Jimmy in Wellington. I’ve seen lots of RSC productions – yes, I’m a bit of a bard junkie – and I never miss the chance to see them in Wellington. Use it or lose it, after all. Remember a few Arts Festivals ago when the RSC came here to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Opera House? And it had Matthew MacFadden as (I think) Puck, in a wonderful performance in a trompe l’oeil set which appeared to recede into the distance. Of course MacFadden has gone on to higher things, although whether starring in Spooks, In My Father’s Den or marrying Keeley Hawes is the greatest I will leave to you.
Back to Lear. Sir Ian McKellen – yes, Gandalf – made me understand that play. I was with him as he made the disastrous judgement calls at the beginning – and I would have made them myself, such was the magnetism of his acting. I was with him when he refused to buckle under the injustice, the abuse, and when he lost his mind under the pressure. And I was with him as cradled the body of his daughter Cordelia (played by Romola Garai, Wilberforce’s wife in Amazing Grace) as the final tragedy unfolded.
Capsule plot: Lear is an ancient king of England, back in the times when the succession wasn’t fixed and the death of a king generally led to a civil war among princes. He has three daughters, two married to English nobles and the youngest being courted by two French dukes. Lear is old, and getting senile, but he realises this and wants to find a way for the kingdom to move ahead without strife. He declares that he will abdicate and divide his kingdom among his daughters.
Lear asks each daughter to declare how much she loves him. The two eldest deliver florid speeches trying to outdo each other in devotion. The third won’t play the game; she says she is her father’s daughter and loves him as a father. Lear flies into a rage, disinherits her and banishes her, and when his advisor tries to stop him, banishes him also.
The older two sisters rapidly turn on Lear. In what would now be called elder abuse, they turn him out of their homes and make it a crime to help him. There’s a sub-plot here with another retainer also making a bad call between his two sons, one of whom ends up as lover to both the king’s elder daughters. The word “machinations” is used, and aptly. The King’s last companion, his Fool, is hanged. The retainer is blinded.
Lear becomes completely unhinged. A fair proportion of the play covers this period, as he alternately realises how stupid he has been and retreats from the truth into madness. In his more lucid moments he now knows which of his daughters actually love him.
Eventually, the youngest daughter raises an army to fight the eldest two. She loses the battle and is cast in jail with Lear, and is assassinated there. In the final scene most of the players are dead (yes, this is Shakespeare), and Lear’s life slips away with his youngest daughter’s body in his arms.
They say that you need have some years under your belt to understand this play. I certainly have more of those since the last time I saw it, which was with Ian Mune in the role at Downstage in Wellington. And Mune acted it well indeed. But Sir Ian last night was a tour de force. The rest of the cast were pretty good, and the set was terrific, lighting and sound as well. The standing ovation went for an age.
I go to a reasonable amount of theatre. But seeing Sir Ian and the RSC play this was something I will never forget. And I pray that, in my own dotage, I don’t end up like Lear.
There’s a performance of this tomorrow, Monday 13th August. Don’t know if there are tickets. If you have any interest and can get to Wellington – go there. You won’t regret it.