The view from the Institute.

King Lear at the Young Vic

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Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory speech – ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ – was notoriously excised from the beginning of Rupert Goold’s debut production of King Lear, but its inclusion would have made perfect sense in light of the nationalist iconography appearing throughout. Emphatic regional accents (a Northern Irish Edmund the Bastard?) and Saint George war paint make us feel we are watching a sort of football terrace power struggle – a struggle for the national soul culminating in Lear’s battle with his own.  It will not be resolved until the Union Jack, like Lear’s ego, is re-composited.

There were dangers the whole would seem a little Lear-lite, and it’s true that this production is not for the purist. Pete Posthlewaite’s King does lack majesty, as has been charged.  Riffing on ‘My Way’ like any old barstool Sinatra, he is often too pedestrian to be epic, too pub-regular to be tragic. Nevertheless this is a Lear for our times: a worked-his-way-up local hero with aspirational children and a small business for an empire.  When he rails against nature, it is the kind of nature with a small ‘n’.

Its depth is enhanced by some beautifully inhabited characters. Other productions have puzzled over Lear’s daughters, but Goold presents us with a psychologically convincing, ‘Goldilocksrange of temperaments.  While Regan exhibits a greed and sexual cruelty verging on sadism, pregnant Goneril falls victim to her own self-loathing; in the face of such madness Cordelia is almost mute. Forced to ‘announce’ her love into a microphone, we feel her sense of hopelessness at turning emotion into rhetoric – a black alchemy in which her sisters are well practiced.  It is a moving performance.

Goold has taken real risks with his interpretation of the text that are sometimes thrilling. When Gloucester says ‘O, let me kiss that hand!’ to Lear, he does not know that the senile, lewd King has been using that hand to masturbate. It lends  a marvellous richness to the King’s response:  ’Let me wipe it first, for it smells of Mortality’. The line becomes funny, but also succinctly highlights the  proximity of sex and death throughout the drama .

At other times that proximity seems unrealistic and overplayed. Gloucester’s eyes are not just gouged but sucked out by Regan and spat to the floor in some bizarre and sadistic evocation of oral sex. It is in scenes like these that the complaints of wilful eccentricity against Goold are quite justified.

Something to see is Postlethwaite’s  lathed, skeletal physique.  Twig-like in a silk dress, its physical dementia is the perfect symbol for the devastation of Alzheimers.  His pensioner patriarch, de-gendered, emaciated, clinging to life after relinquishing power over this psychotic Royle Family, should easily keep the flag flying for this unsteady, yet admirable production.


Written by benjamenta

February 10, 2011 at 9:54 am

Posted in Theatre

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