Thursday 3 September 2009
Unfolding King Lear A Model
I’m struggling to remember the last time a show as small as this, in a venue this obscure, gathered such a rapid buzz about it. From one comment left by Chris Goode on Lyn Gardner’s What to See This Week blog (“mind-stretching, disorienting, harrowing, exhilarating”), to Lyn’s subsequent Twitter report (“Terrifying, painful and utterly compelling”) and then by word of mouth by friends and Facebook (“you might want to keep tomorrow clear, and just reassemble yourself piece by piece”) by the time I entered the tiny space in the Vault (under St Augustine’s, accessed by an easily overlooked side street off ) I was surprised that there wasn’t a queue round the block with everyone who’s anyone in the avant garde lining up for returns. So it’s safe to say I had quite high expectations.
High expectations are not a useful thing to go into a theatre with. Particularly if they are based purely on sense impressions. While I’d heard a lot about how Unfolding King Lear A Model had made other people feel, I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was, what happened, how it happened, or why it left such apparently profound impressions on them. This isn’t a good thing either. Not least, because I’m quite resistant to people trying to disorientate, harrow and terrify me. Least of all in an obvious or overt way, which seemed to be the implication. “Here is a piece that sets out to be upsetting” was what I had inferred.
Not knowing how this process was to be conducted, I was apprehensive to say the least to see that the “set” for UKLAM consisted mostly of a high wooden bench strewn with various sinister-looking apparatus. As I’ve said a thousand times, I’m *very* squeamish. I also know that there’s plenty in King Lear that can be made very upsetting indeed.
So, what is Unfolding King Lear A Model (I think that’s the correct capitalisation. The slightly wonky, wrong-looking capital ‘A’ certainly seems in keeping with the feel of the piece)? It’s a one man show. Quite literally. As well as being the sole performer, Jeremy Hardingham also operates his own distinctly lo-fi lighting and presses the buttons on his own sound desk.
[apologies if I get this next bit slightly wrong] It either opens with Hardingham simply dressed in grubby neutral-coloured top and trousers or enrobed and wrapped in a chain wearing a small slate chalkboard. Then, depending whether he started off wearing the robe or not, he either takes it off and puts it back on, or puts it on for the first time. He does this again later. The space remains dimly lit, mostly by spill from the two lights glaring into the faces of the small audience. There’s some disorientating white noise playing in the background.
The more I write this review, the more uncertain I become as to the details and the order in which they occurred.
Hardingham brutally wraps gaffa tape round the lower half of his head, and then half stabs, half cuts a hole for his mouth using a pair of scissors. Although not actually self-harm, but it is deeply uncomfortable to watch. He paints his face white, takes off his hat, fills it with chalk dust and replaces it. He opens an envelope with the number 1 marked on it, takes out a sheaf of papers and begins to read.
His voice is a surprise: full-on orotund RSC English. The disjuncture between his now hellish appearance – his eyes an angry, irritated red peering out of a chalky, funereal mask – and this voice is quite startling. What he’s saying momentarily falls by the wayside. It soon becomes clear that the words are cut and pasted from King Lear. From Act One of King Lear, in fact. The sheaf of papers from this first envelope is reassuringly slender – the show only runs for an hour after all – so we settle, unsettled, to take in this bizarre, painful-looking spectacle.
At the same time the mind does a fair bit of racing. You’re cross-referencing the snippets of speech. Who says that? Is it all Lear? Is he doing different voices? Yes he is. Do the different voices relate to different characters? Possibly. I’m still struggling with the RSCness of the accents. Also, slightly, with the apparent linearity – although I’m only guessing at that. It starts fairly close to the beginning with a flurry of “Nothings” sounding like vocal epilepsy. What follows could be in virtually any order at all. It’s not that the speech is garbled – much of it is clear as a bell – but the way it’s decontextualised, shredded and regurgitated - sometimes at speed, sometimes mumbled, sometimes with all the poetic gusto of the actor-manager that renders much of it down to jarring, fragmentary noise pierced by shards of words.
Vocally, Hardingham turns out to be something of a wizard. He skips from voice to voice, line by line, sounding like a manically spliced recording of King Lear from the mid-sixties – there’s a lot of that heightened RP, old-school posh. There are touches of, say, Gielgud or Richardson mixed occasionally with that spooky, talking-backwards voice frequently favoured by David Lynch. It’s a stunning performance but it’s often hard to discern why it is how it is.
While doing this, Hardingham potters about his work-bench, threatening it with a hammer here, cajoling a metronome on it there. All similarly unsettling, but mapping only infrequently onto something that concretely marries to the text being spoken. The real departure from this comes in Act Three, which is mostly given over to Gloucester’s blinding. In this, “Gloucester” is “played” (can we just assume that any traditional words to do with stagecraft have scare marks round them from now on?) by a bare lightbulb clipped onto a mirror lent against the side of the space’s small archway-cum-mini-proscenium. A tape of clanking medieval torture noises, along with recorded speech from the text. This is voiced by Hardingham, I think, who recites along with the recording or engages it in dialogue. He threatens the "Gloucester" with a murderous-looking set of map compasses, before pouring stage blood over the shining bulb. It’s pretty disturbing stuff, as is his increasing playing with an axe, which he taps against the side of his head.
From this point on, the piece seems kind of galvanised by the horror. The pathos of Gloucester’s later suicide attempt, and Lear’s madness in the storm (which may or may not have been the point where Hardingham tries to perform a speech through mouthfuls of Red Bull) both make recognisable, poignant appearances.
The final coup – best not to read if you’re likely to see the show – is, if anything, even more wince-making. At the bit in the sequence where – if this corresponds to the Shakespeare, which I think it does – Lear is presented with Cordelia’s lifeless body, Hardingham eats a handful of salt and tries to do the subsequent speech without being sick. He then went out and was sick. This was proper self-abuse in the service of art. No mucking about here, you could see precisely how unpleasant a time he was having. And it made for just about as piteous spectacle as Lear should be at that point.
I realise over the course of writing this that my reading of what I was looking at has tended to lean toward the hugely literal. I’m interested in where this response comes from. Given Goode’s championing of the performance as poetic text, I found it strange – in view of the way in which it had been cut, shaped and delivered - how hard it was to hear it as the sort of poem concrete you’d imagine it would turn into. Similarly, I was surprised – given the other elements of dramaturgy present in the staging – that the text itself still ran forwards. Coupled with the RSC voices it made the piece seem strangely tamed, still accepting Shakespeare’s chronology of the text.
The piece also does little to signpost any intended effect. It’s got King Lear in the title (and as its source), so it seems fair to view it in the light of the play and as a commentary on it. But precisely what that comment is is never made clear. None of this is intended as a criticism, but as an observation. However, having gotten over my surprise at the more mainstream elements of the performance, I did find it curiously difficult to settle into a rhythm through which I could absorb it. Sure, of course this is a rhythm in its own right – the piece plays with that aesthetic of continual unease and sudden shift. But, between the disruption and the linearity, I found it hard to attach to anything in particular. Certainly moments – the obvious blinding and salt-in-mouth bits – have stayed with me, but on the whole I found the constant buffeting made it near-impossible to get close enough to the piece to find it actually upsetting or troubling. Yes, it contained troubling images, but, for me, they didn’t attach to anything enough to get under my skin. Other elements distracted from- rather than added to-. Of course the interplay of these parts was fascinating in itself, but in a far more cold, intellectual way than advance word had led me to expect.
In many ways, I feel I kind of failed the piece, rather than that the piece failed me or simply “failed”. Like taking a running jump at a high hurdle and not quite clearing the bar somehow. I’m fascinated to know how and why the piece clearly operated on some at a far deeper level, though.
Comments more than gratefully received.