Now that I’m settled in for my final undergraduate semester, I decided to reflect once more on all my England adventure. I have lots of material to sift through — seven King Lear recordings, at least 10 prompt books, pages and pages of reviews — so instead of just regurgitating all the dates and details about each and every production, I’m going to use this post to write about some patterns I noticed. Most of my research focused on Lear after the iconic Peter Brooks 1962 production. It’s widely considered the most recent turning point in the play’s production history, a production that broadened the play’s meaning from a story about a sad king to a commentary on the tragedy of the human condition. Most directors since then, whether they know it or not, have taken some cues from Peter Brooks, whether it’s in their production intent, design and style, casting or philosophy. So the following are some of the trends I picked up on while sifting through piles of King Lears, some more effective than others.
King Lear: First off, most reviews of the play focus primarily on the title actor’s performance. I’d estimate that about a third of all reviews compare performing the role to “climbing an Everest,” a metaphor that started to infuriate me by the time I made it to the 1990s. Critics seem to enjoy categorizing Lears, analyzing whether an actor was more angry or pathetic, how well he transitioned into madness, whether he defied stereotypical conventions of the King (titanic, crotchety, grizzly white beard) and if he managed to climb the legendary mountain of the role. Reading these descriptions became wearisome pretty quickly, because I was touched in some way by each Lear’s performance, while critics spent 500 words dissecting how effective it was compared to their epitomal King. Every Lear is essentially different, and that’s what I’ve learned to love about the role. I saw jolly kings resembling Henry VIII or Santa Claus (2008 Globe with David Calder); I saw kings whose relationships with their daughters verged on abusive or even incestuous (2010 RSC with Gregory Hicks); some kings looked as if they were tackling more of a midlife crisis than an end-of-life fear or death (2004 RSC with Corin Redgrave). I had my personal favorites of course, but each of these kings moved me in some way. Broadly, the most effective kings for me were those who weren’t strictly Paul Scofield-esque (if you’ve watched the film version of Brooks’ Lear, you’ll understand why Scofield is often described as the coldest, most unsympathetic Lear of all time). Most moving were those who were humanly flawed but gave me a reason to still pity them, who weren’t so angry they were totally unlikable. It’s a difficult balance, but one that I thought made the best Lears.
The Fool: After watching more than eight Fools sing and dance and pun their way through King Lear, I’m going to be perfectly honest: I still don’t understand most of his jokes. Many of them are just incompressible by contemporary standards or make references to things only an Elizabethan spectator would appreciate. So the best Fools I saw were those who managed to make even the strangest of jokes understandable. They injected meaning into those riddles with clever staging or use of props instead of trying to make the audience understand what Shakespeare’s audience would have found funny. I noticed that most directors decided they needed to explain why the Fool disappears in the middle of act four, so I saw a few tragic ends to the Fool (some took the “and my poor fool is hanged” line literally). Other Fools acknowledged being replaced by Poor Tom, bitterly staying behind while everyone left the hovel or surrendering his coxcomb to the King’s new favorite.
Goneril and Regan: I feel hypocritical lumping the two evil sisters together in one category because of the effort most productions put toward differentiating between the two, but they really do go hand in hand. The sisters are also usually given some sort of motivation behind their villainy, something more complex than an innate love of violence. All of the productions, to some degree or another, had me sympathizing with Goneril; they all took some varying cue from Brooks’ rowdy Lear, throwing animal carcasses around after the hunt, drumming on tables for dinner, upturning chairs and tables. Regan often grew into her evilness, discovering a new found blood-lust during the Gloucester blinding scene. The sisters were often my favorite part of watching those recordings. I loved seeing how each new actress decided to personalize her Goneril or Regan. Their characterizations did feel forced in some productions, but making them more complex than the “ugly stepsister” tradition was refreshing.
Edmund: I never knew Edmund could be so entertaining. But sure enough, he was very often the comic relief, a seductively funny villain who played off his audience’s engagement. Unlike the sisters, I rarely sympathized with Edmund (something we really need to consider as we shape our villain). But the best Edmunds were the ones I enjoyed watching, not just because they were sexy (pretty much always the case, and for good reason), but because they played with their evilness in some way.
Gloucester: Honestly, he verged on boring in a lot of productions. I don’t remember many particularly memorable Gloucesters, even though he’s one of my favorite characters in the play. Compared to Lear, who is such a titanic, overpowering role, Gloucester faded into the background. A couple stood out because they were particularly cruel toward Edmund in the opening scene (having him pull off his boots or talking over him at a table).
The blinding scene was always worth watching, though; it almost felt like a competition among productions to stage the most disturbing, violent blinding yet. There were some pretty creative blindings (a red-hot poker, anyone?), but Regan and Cornwall were usually the most memorable parts of the scene. Their interactions and reactions marked great opportunities for characterization. Fun fact: The RSC uses tinned lychees as its eyeballs during King Lear (you know, in case Regan feels like chucking one across the stage).
Edgar: I saw a whole lot of Jesus imagery in Poor Tom. He was usually dressed in a diaper/loin cloth sort of covering, and there was a pretty good chance in each recording that he would strike a crucifixion-type pose at one point or another. I was surprised at how terrifyingly many Edgars played their Poor Toms. I always pictured him as something akin to a pathetically cute stray puppy, but I saw a lot of actors play him as a dark, nightmarish demonic creature.
Cordelia: As expected, she often faded into the background. Most reviews didn’t even touch on her actress’ performance. When they did, the comments usually used the words “touching” or “gentle.” So when a Cordelia was particularly snappy or biting, I was hooked. Romola Garai in the 2007 RSC production with Ian McKellen was particularly notable (my notes just say “damn! fiesty!”). The 2010 RSC Lear had Cordelia decked out in armor as the Queen of France, giving her more of an active role in the movement of then play than just having a voice that was “ever soft, gentle and low.”
Design: Most productions were fairly ambiguous with their placement of their world of the play, which frustrated some critics to no end. The 2010 RSC Lear, for example, looked like it was set in ancient England for the first scene; Lear was dressed in a thick cloak, the map was a heavy leather tarp stretched across the floor, the daughters were in long gowns. But by the end of the play, the world seemed to have fast forwarded to World War I with soldiers in green military coats and helmets and a set that had broken down from a stately palace to a post-industrial warfront. This concept of disintegration was pretty common, actually: the 2004 RSC production was set against a dark brick wall that cracked open and crumbled more and more as Lear descended farther into madness. The 2007 set opened in a regal palace hall, but by the end of the play it had fallen to ruin. Again and again I saw Lears set in an unspecific era, a timeless world that evoked everything from Iron Age England to Russian Ruritania. And again and again those worlds literally fell apart as the play continued.