King Lear is a role that so often ranks actors of a certain age; it is the Hamlet for the performer who is closer to his pension than his school days. As such, much attention is usually focused on the incumbent of that role. Yet, when director Rupert Goold works his magic on Shakespeare, as he most recently did with Macbeth and The Tempest, the critics wonder what the director will lend to the piece.
As with his previous offerings, King Lear is no straightforward representation of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. In the Young Vic’s auditorium, with actors entering and exiting through the audience and performing among the theatergoers, the sense of regality is stripped away. Intimacy breeds familiarity as royals pass among mere commoners. Giles Cadle’s set, a corrugated iron castle and worn stone steps, evokes the impression that Lear is the least wealthy of kings, while the introduction of a microphone when Lear asks his daughters to profess their love makes him resemble a working man’s club entertainer circa 1970.
This style of performance runs throughout the show, Lear again returning to the mike for his speech in the storm amid pouring rain and a chorus of singing enemies. Is Lear really mad, or is he just performing?
Postlethwaite’s Lear is a likeable chap, his weatherbeaten face showing years of worry. He comes across as the patriarch digging a hole that his pride prevents him escaping from. Around Postlethwaite, his supporting performers flourish. Nigel Cooke’s Kent is a man viscerally devoted to his lord, while Forbes Masson delivers a desperately tortured Fool displaying enough pain for the entire Young Vic audience. Jonjo O’Neill adds a touch of the cheeky rogue to the usurping Edmund.
Theatregoers familiar with the director’s work might recognise a few Goold-isms – the use of projection and video, the rumbling bass and dramatic drumbeats – but additional twists and flourishes add new impetus to the well known tragedy. Gloucester’s blinding scene had a touch of the Reservoir Dogs about it and drew gasps from the first night audience, Lear’s speech about Goneril’s future offspring has a new gravitas, and the return of the banished Cordelia casts the youngest daughter as an avenging angel.
When King Lear – a co-production between the Young Vic, Headlong Theatre and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse – opened last year at the Liverpool venue, it was met with claims of a muddled vision. The Young Vic has inherited a more honed production where the tale of the disintegrating king takes less prominence, giving audiences a fable of an aging man fighting hopelessly against the ambitions of a power-hungry youth.