King Lear – Globe Theatre, London

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director Nancy Meckler
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

One of the most disputed aspects of the late Tudor age was Elizabeth I’s refusal to name her successor, fearing, as she claimed, that men prefer the rising to the setting sun. While her whims frustrated many, she brought decades of relative stability to a sorely divided nation. No wonder then, only a few years after her death, Shakespeare used that very point of contention as the basis for King Lear, proving that in matters of succession, the old Queen had been right.

tell-us-block_editedAt the start of the play King Lear wishes to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, providing they can describe their love for him. Goneril and Regan earn their portion, but Lear’s favourite Cordelia refuses and is banished. Keen to flex their power, the remaining sisters join forces to oust their ailing father who is plagued by age and madness. With similar family scheming coming between Gloucester as his sons, can Cordelia’s returning army restore tranquillity?

Nancy Meckler’s production is the last hurrah in The Globe’s Summer of Love Season, and as they pave the way for Emma Rice’s successor, King Lear feels like an apt choice. The many references to
the power of nature and elemental influences often works best in an open-air theatre where actors can look imploringly to the skies, as they do here, for convenient gusts of wind or a timely shower to
enhance the confusion of Lear’s mind and Shakespeare’s high-stakes drama of politics and violence.

Unlike many recent Lears, Meckler focuses on the opportunities for humour in the text and one of the programme essays suggests laughter and tragedy are closely aligned. There’s plenty of jokey stage fighting and even someone tripping over a suitcase unconvincingly, but while this attempt at a fresh interpretation is interesting, the overall effect divests the central tragedy of its hopeless power and, by extension, of any real sympathy for the numerous innocent lives sacrificed to Lear’s foolishness.

The slightly cartoony approach to the eye gouging scene undermines one of Shakespeare’s most brutal moments in which an entirely innocent man is painfully mutilated, and the audience should feel for him. Likewise, Lear’s descent into madness is largely pitiable until he dangles flowers from a beret and then scatters unexpected confetti like a magician – where he found that on a hill near Dover is anyone’s guess. Meckler’s production never allows sympathy or tenderness to linger for long without casting round for its next laugh. This is tragedy with most of the tragedy taken out.

But, for the most part, Kevin McNally’s Lear fights against the limitations of the production to deliver a gruff and raging Lear whose self-inflicted madness is carefully sewn in from Act One. McNally hints at his forgetfulness, the overindulgent nature of his parenting and his increasing infirmity right from the start, so his health and mental state decline credibly. This is a hot-tempered Lear, irrational and mercurial, who is quick to judge and long to regret, which McNally makes the centre piece of an otherwise disjointed production.

There is useful support particularly from Sirine Saba’s patronisingly pushy Regan with a surprisingly violent streak, while Emily Braun’s Goneril is a more of a traditional wicked Queen. Anjana Vasan’s Cordelia is suitably sweet, but none of the other performances seems to come to life in quite the same way as the humour washes out the darker shades of characters like Edmund (Ralph Davis) and Cornwall (Faz Singhateh) despite the actors’ best efforts.

Meckler’s production feels like a series of disjointed scenes and for those new to the play, it may be difficult to keep track of how the different plots fit together. Too often production decisions, such as the flashing lights and drum beats to create Lear’s storm, work against the already atmospheric intensity of Shakespeare’s writing, but Kevin McNally’s heroic efforts just about keep things on track.

With a new sun about to rise at the Globe, maybe King Lear will get another chance to shine.

Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: Marc Brenner

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