Theatre trip: King Lear in Chichester

Theatre Trip: King Lear in Chichester

On one of those crisp and golden mornings which November occasionally gives us, a 30 strong group of MPW A2 students took a luxury coach down to Chichester to the intimate Minerva theatre to see Shakespeare’s vast play King Lear. I was heartened by the fact that some AS students and one GCSE student had also seen the wisdom of watching a play they will be studying later in their academic careers.

The old adage that when an actor is old enough to play King Lear he is too old to play it needs adjustment in Frank Langella’s case: gruff of voice and stiff of sinew he seemed just old enough. Unlike the Almeida production last year – where Jonathan Pryce gave us a Lear suffering from senile dementia – Langella’s reading suggests a Lear who has not lost all his faculties but instead never yet had them. This reading of the play is by far preferable in my view. Only in the final scene where the stage direction calls for Lear “to enter with the dead body of Cordelia in his arms” did that adage have any justification: Langella at 75 drags rather than carries Cordelia’s lifeless body onto the stage, so denying us what a traditional reading sees as an allusion to the Pieta and what more modern, psychoanalytically attuned interpretations might see as an allusion to a groom carrying the bride across the threshold – visual evidence of Lear’s dangerous possessiveness and also proof positive of another adage, that we should be careful what we wish for. Lear’s “best object” is now simply that.

That modern reading was, however, touched on, for Lear in this production flinches when France kisses Cordelia, as though the whole intention of the dowry ceremony at the beginning of the play had been an attempt to thwart Cordelia marrying and keep her for himself. Of course, in the source material, TheChronicle History of King Leir, the reverse takes place since ‘Leir’ seeks to trick ‘Cordella’ into marriage and not out of it. But then Shakespeare amended genre, vowel and just about everything else when he re-wrote that anonymous and rather wooden play in rhyming couplets.

This performance featured other delicate touches. For example, when Cornwall lay dying, Regan was reluctant to give him her hand, as though the ideal of callous invulnerability which they had pursued – and had realised by blinding Gloucester moments earlier – had been undone by her husband’s mortal wounding. The blinding of Gloucester in this production was suitably ghastly.

This production in traditional dress had an Early Modern theatrical sparseness to it, but the storm scene featured a technologically derived innovation I have never witnessed before: a deluge from above poured onto the stage, soaking Lear and the Fool. Even the more technically minded of the audience, try as they might, could not see by what mechanism it drained off. One can only hope that “fresh weeds”, warm towels and hot toddies awaited both actors offstage after that baptismal drenching!

This was an excellent production, in which Shakespeare’s words were always clearly enunciated. There were cuts, but these produced a version of the play that had pace without forfeiting profundity. A memorable event for all concerned.