“‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind”.
After a sold-out run at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2017, director Jonathan Munby brings William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ to the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre. A contemporary, dystopian production, intimately staged, the production deftly portrays the mental deterioration of its title character, offering a glimpse into an ocean of anguish and human suffering, as audiences join characters in trying to navigate through a tempest of national, political, and personal, tragedy.
King Lear plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, offering the largest share to the daughter who claims to love him most. Lear sits in the centre of the stage, centre of attention, at a desk facing the audience, his back to the podium on which his daughters take turns to declare their love for him. Goneril, his eldest daughter, speaks first. After she has finished speaking, Lear picks up a map and a large pair of scissors, and cuts the map in half horizontally, offering her the largest portion of his kingdom, without even having listened to his other two daughters speak. Even as Regan, his second eldest daughter, is speaking, he takes up scissors and map again, and cuts the remaining half down the middle, offering to her, quite fittingly, the piece bearing Cornwall, her husband being the Duke of Cornwall. The fact that he does this as she is speaking suggests that perhaps he is expecting flattery, so used is he to it.
Lear, his back to his daughters, simply hears their ‘emphatic’ declarations of love, and seems to be enjoying it. However, the audience, looking, watching, seeing, Goneril and Regan, can tell that such declarations are not genuine – their flattery is empty. For example, the dialogue of the two is punctuated by gestures, facial expressions, even the odd sarcastic chuckle, that completely dismisses what they are saying, they almost seem to be it off, obeying their father to the point of doing what is necessary in order to get what they want out of it. In a way, they seem, to the audience, a little more sarcastic, than genuine. However, Lear, not looking, not seeing, displays a figurative blindness from the start of this production, and this blindness is one that clouds his vision almost until the very end.
Later, Lear will state to Kent, “Mine eyes are not o’ th’ best”. Although quite possibly losing his literal eyesight, an effect of his age, perhaps, or a symptom of his current madness, is Lear acknowledging this figurative blindness? Acknowledging his own foolishness? It might be Gloucester who will have his eyes removed, but it is Lear who is truly blind – blind to reason, and to truth.
When it is the turn of Lear’s youngest daughter, Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s dignified Cordelia, to speak, she simply says “nothing”. Lear warns her that “nothing will come of nothing”, and tells her to speak again. She tries to convey her love as best she can, however, according to Lear, her words fall short of those of her sisters, and she is disinherited – she will receive “nothing”. This is much to the dismay of Sinead Cusack‘s honest Kent, who is banished for her objection. However, in truth, it is the words of Goneril and of Regan that mean “nothing”. Cordelia explains that she loves her father so much, she is unable to put her love into words – “ I cannot heave My heart into my mouth”. Unlike her viperous sisters, who words are just that, lacking in truth, Cordelia’s words actually mean so much more, but Lear is blinded to this. Cordelia is honest, she speaks the truth, and proves her love for her father in deed, which is much more significant. She recognises the emptiness, the meaninglessness, words can have, and intends to prove her love to her father through action – her actions speak far louder than the empty words of her sisters. Through such action, she proves, particularly towards the end of the play, that her love for her father is far stronger, and of far greater value, than that of her sisters.
Angry at her inability to flatter him, to feed his vanity, Lear, enraged, takes up the third and final piece of the map, and tears it in two, handing one piece each to Dukes Albany and Cornwall – meaning that the kingdom has been divided in two equal portions, cleft apart. Now, Goneril and Regan both have considerable power, and the authority that comes with it. Goneril, convinced that, now Lear is “old”, he “should be ruled and led”, commands her father to reduce his retinue of one hundred knights, to fifty. When Lear refuses, cursing Goneril with sterility, he goes to stay instead with Regan. Hiding behind a mask of false understanding and empathy, Regan then commands him to reduce his retinue even more. Before long, the two sisters, now together, ask Lear why he needs even one knight, enraging him further. In this production, the presence of several supernumerary actors appear as knights, in an attempt to highlight to the audience the reason behind the sisters’ requests, whilst a tall and narrow mirror at the back, offering reflections of each of these men, gives an illusion of even more. These knights, rowdy, boisterous and debauched, drinking and feasting, have clearly pushed their sisters to their limits, and here, they don’t seem quite so unreasonable.
Lear, really of his own accord, with only Kent and his Fool with him, hastens from his daughters, out into a storm, cleverly created on stage with rainfall – soaking the actors – the roar of thunder, and the flash of lightning. Here, the three meet Edgar, now Poor Tom. Lear seems to take an instant liking to Tom, hanging on his words, referring to him as a “philosopher”. When Tom declares himself to be cold, Lear removes his own jacket and drapes it around Tom’s shoulders. Kent takes off her coat, but as soon as she has wrapped it around her King, Lear removes it, and puts it again around the shoulders of Tom, tying the sleeves together round his neck. Several times in the production, Lear gently rubs Tom to warm him up, with no real heed for his own self. There is a loving intimacy between the two, Lear seeming to become as a fatherly figure – whether guilty that he wasn’t more fatherly with his own daughters, father instead to a nation, or out of longing for a son, or whether simply just moved by Tom’s plight , and Tom readily welcomes this, having been cast off by his own father. In any event, this is a relationship more akin to one you would expect to see between a father and his child – a relationship nothing like the one Lear shares with his daughters.
At one point during this storm, a storm reflective of Shakespeare’s tempestuous characters, and the turbulence of Lear’s kingdom now, a national turbulence similar to one contemporary audiences are experiencing today, Lear, passionately, rips open his shirt, ready to remove his own clothing, to imitate Tom, sensing a similarity between them, and their situations – once again, though, assuming that Tom’s ‘daughters’ must have brought him to this pass. Kent prevents Lear from removing his clothes, but it is clear that he wishes to become equal to even the poorest of his subjects. Now, King only in name, power and authority gone to Goneril and Regan, Lear’s title means nothing, himself no better off, it would seem, than Poor Tom, prey to the deepest of anguish and human suffering. The hollow shell of the man, of the King, he once was, Lear himself has been brought to nothing.
Later, after Edgar has been reunited with his father Danny Webb‘s movingly wretched Gloucester, now blind, the two come across Lear, who enters the stage – trousers upturned, holes in his socks, shirt gone, his once-white vest top now grey with dirt, a huge leaf sticking out of a headband, bouquet of wildflowers in his hand, which he is holding as one would a rifle. A particularly incongruous appearance when he proclaims, “I am the King”. Now mad, he truly is a pitiful sight, and McKellen masterfully present us with the picture of a broken man, a man so different to that we first saw. At the very beginning of the play, the house lights went up on Lear, alone on stage, just for a moment, silent, before another blackout, and the following opening dialogue between Kent and Gloucester began. Although not having spoken, this silence speaks volumes, as McKellen here presents his audience with a portrait of sovereignty, majesty, and power. This was a man whose very countenance was authority.
His gradual descent into the realms of madness, therefore, is heart-wrenching. Whether we believe his predicament to be of his own making or not – whether a fit of childish petulance, or victim to the greed of others – it is hard to watch this once mighty King brought so low.
As has been noted, Sir Ian McKellen’s Lear certainly is “every inch a king”. A monumental performance, McKellen’s mastery of Shakespeare’s language, and respect for its meaning, arrests audiences. His effortless command of dialogue, with his deliberate pausing, and stumbling over words, presents a King teetering on the edge of dementia, a very human king, as prey to mental weakness as he is to physical, given the characters supposed age. McKellen presents us with this very flawed, very human, anti-hero, swerving between moments of quiet strength and noble stature, and human frailty, his knees buckling, causing other characters to rush to his aid, to help him stand. A true master in Shakespearean performance, McKellen perfectly portrays a king, whose tragic, pitiful descent into madness exposes the depths of human suffering.
McKellen made his professional West End debut at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1964, and the actor has said that his current role in ‘King Lear’ is to be his last Shakespearean role on the stage. McKellen has had an incredible career, both on stage and screen, and has touched the hearts of many. Now, it might be said that his stage career has “come full circle”, and what more fitting way to end than with a monumental performance as Shakespeare’s most tragic king.
James Corrigan’s deliciously calculating Edmund resents his illegitimacy, questioning society’s labelling of him as “bastard” and “base”. He plans to dispose of his legitimate older brother, Luke Thompson’s virtuous, honourable Edgar, and tricks his father, the Earl of Gloucester, into thinking that Edgar wishes to usurp him, and undermine his power, and Gloucester responds by disinheriting Edgar. Edgar, cast out, chased by his father’s men, removes his clothing, covers his face with mud, and cuts his hand with a knife, smearing blood over his body. Thompson’s transition into the tormented Poor Tom is excellent, his mannerisms, his nature, even his accent, completely transformed.
After Edmund betrays his father also, Gloucester is arrested by Regan and her husband, Cornwall. In a slaughterhouse, drained animal carcasses hung either side of the stage, Regan and Cornwall gouge out the eyes of Gloucester, an act that, in this grisly setting, is no less than an act of savage and inhuman butchery. Gloucester is tied to a chair, and the chair is lowered to the ground by two of Cornwall’s men, whilst Cornwall uses a medieval looking implement to remove the first of Gloucester’s eyes. What is perhaps even more disquietening than this, however, is Regan’s behaviour, and the sadistic pleasure she seems to take from this. Like an excited child, Kirsty Bushell‘s Regan runs round the chair as this act is being done, shrieking with an unnatural, and rather unnerving, glee. Regan then has a hand herself in removing the second of Gloucester’s eyes, along with her husband, and this time, the chair is left upright. However, this is not the first time in the production Regan a willing aptitude for violence – earlier, for instance, she continued to press that Kent be contained in stocks. When one of Cornwall’s men objects to this treatment of Gloucester, mortally wounding him, Regan kills him without so much as a second thought.
Before Edgar’s duel with brother Edmund, before the battle, there is a very touching moment between Edgar and his father, Gloucester. Several times in the production, the blond Gloucester reached out to touch the face of Edgar, in the guise of Poor Tom, but he simply moved away, or pushed his father’s hand away. Now, however, Tom takes the hand of Gloucester, and allows him to feel his face. Although nothing is said concerning this, we know that there will have been an overwhelming sense of realisation from Gloucester, reunited with the son he, in his haste, and wrongfully, disinherited. Although brief, this is a very poignant moment, as this will probably be the last time the two have a physical closeness. Edgar later reveals that his father died, from the shock of learning his son was still alive.
In this production, the idea of “nothing”, of nothingness, is emphasised heavily. Towards the end of the play, after Edgar reveals himself to Edmund, Edmund states that “the wheel is come full circle”. One might say that all has come to nothing, and this ‘circle’, is simply an empty shell, around which our characters have revolved, but not one is better off than when the play started – in fact, most characters, if not all, have been subjected to the very depths of human suffering, many dead at the end of the play. Paul Wills’ design poignantly reflects this – at the start of the production, our once regal characters stand in wood-panelled state rooms and chandelier-ed dining rooms. Later, however, all of this is stripped back, to reveal a stark and barren, almost empty set which, whilst a reflection of Lear’s mental state, also serves as a harrowing metaphorical extension of this nothingness.
A Union Jack flag features several times throughout the production. At the beginning of the production, it is draped across the back of the opulent set – a symbol of national pride, power and strength. After the play’s battle, when the British forces of Regan and Goneril have been victorious against the French forces of Cordelia, Regan, the flag draped around her shoulders, lifts it high and cheers. However, after Regan has been poisoned by Goneril, and Goneril commits suicide, both dying offstage, their bodies are dragged onstage, and the Union Jack flag is now used to cover their faces. A cruel irony; this once great nation has been destroyed along with them, the promise of peace, unity and stability destroyed, the future of the nation uncertain. Lear’s family is wiped out, his kingdom divided.
It has been suggested that, in ‘King Lear’, Shakespeare warns of the consequences of a divided kingdom. Under the reign of King James I of England, the kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland were united, in the hopes of forming one strong, prosperous nation, that of ‘Great Britain’, a nation under one monarch, one parliament, and one law. In the production, McKellen’s Lear, when dividing his kingdom between his daughters, takes scissors to a map and cuts away sections to give to his daughters, a final and definite decision, and in so doing, inadvertently he breaks up, he tears apart, his own kingdom – with tragic results. A clever touch, as here there seems to be little doubt that Lear himself is to blame – by wielding the scissors himself; it is he who divides his realm, he who has weakened the nation. Mirroring the deterioration of Lear’s mental state, the state of his country too deteriorates – to the point of civil war and internal strife. In a nation currently struggling to negotiate a ‘strong and stable’ Brexit deal, the current political stage one of fools, the future uncertain, this couldn’t be more relevant. Here, we see the disastrous consequences of a divided kingdom, which includes personal tragedy, as with Lear, as well as political tragedy. As we see in this play, as we have always seen, and as are seeing now – a united kingdom will stand – divided, it falls.
At the end of the play, having been mortally wounded by brother Edgar, the dying Edmund, despite a fit of convulsion, undergoes a change of heart – “Some good I mean to do Despite of mine own nature”. He confesses of his plans to have Lear and Cordelia, captured in battle, killed. But it is too late. Lear walks on to the stage, the dead Cordelia draped across his back, and delivers the famous “howl, howl, howl, howl”. Lear lies Cordelia on the floor, and kneels besides her, holding a feather to her lips to test for breath. When there is none, he lifts her up and, after removing the blue noose that sits around her neck, he sits, cradling her body, as the mercilessness of mortality penetrates his soul as he, in vain, searches for answers – “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?”. Lear himself begins to gasp for breath, and orders that his top button be undone. Lear urges Kent and Edgar to look on Cordelia, and as they do so, overwhelmed with sadness, his heart broken under the weight of his anguish and suffering, Lear dies. The final picture we get of Lear, his favourite child, dead in his arms, is harrowing, heart-wrenching, and truly humbling.
In a programme note, Irish Foreign Correspondent and author Fergel Keane OBE states that the play’s central concern is “the imperative of seeing things as they really are in times when even truth is being trampled underfoot”. Today, in a world of ‘fake news’, truth is rare, but its importance should not be undermined, and cannot be disputed. This urgently relevant production of ‘King Lear’ highlights the importance of truth, of acknowledging, recognising, and championing, truth, of seeing things as they really are, and of speaking what needs to be said.
“The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long”.