Written for CultureWars.org.uk
I have a confession to make: I am pretty squeamish so I never look forward to the middle of King Lear. I am also not good with heights. For the press night of Dominic Dromgoole's 2008 Globe season opener King Lear I was seated in the front row of the uppermost circle of the theatre. The Globe has built a thrust stage into the courtyard from the stage so at times in the upper levels, it feels like one is staring directly down onto the action. I lasted about an hour before having to go and have a good few deep breaths, before rejoining the play in the courtyard.
Given such circumstances, it is always tempting to wonder if maybe the performance couldn't have done more to distract me. King Lear is one of those Shakespeare plays the set-up of which can often veer into tedium, and veer into tedium this indeed did. Act one scene one is generally a pretty good index of how the entire production will pan out. The most striking thing is the costumes. Authenticity is the watchword here, with the whole cast decked out in full Jacobeathan garb of a muted autumnal palette. Nor is there any clanging symbolism; Goneril and Regan look perfectly normal, as does their sister Cordelia. Similarly, David Calder's Lear doesn't start the play either foaming at the mouth with madness, nor so hopelessly senile that one wonders how he has got this far. No, Lear here is a perfectly normal chap who is dividing his kingdom between his three daughters, and is mortified when nothing comes of nothing.
Dromgoole's approach treats the play logically and sensibly, showing the characters as developed, almost Chekhovian personalities. The problem is, although more outward-facing than Russian naturalism, this is a difficult way of bringing Shakespeare alive in a large outdoor space. What might be deeply moving in the Cottesloe, is not necessarily going to reach past the groundlings in the Globe. An exception to this is Danny Lee Wynter's Fool. Although married to a curious set of directorial decisions, his very presence on stage immediately puts the others in the shade. With his vocal technique alone being a pleasure to hear, even if hampered by some needlessly baroque ornamentation. It's one of those performances that makes you wish that Dromgoole had also observed the likely original doubling up between the parts of Cordelia and the Fool – they never actually speak in the same scenes, and indeed the Fool's early exit from the play seems only explicable because of her sudden return. Wynter would make a fascinating, strange and troubling Cordelia, a far cry from the usual wets asked to essay her woes. Elsewhere, Edmund and Edgar are both surly youths with (Welsh? Geordie?) accents, while Paul Copley's Kent spends most of the play disguised as a bluff Yorkshireman.
For much of the play the psychological realism pays differing dividends, interspersed with medieval song and rumbunctious Herne worshipping dance sequences, plus a very stylised battle between English and French armies that seems to have been plundered straight from Black Watch or the National's St Joan. However, it does render the conclusion of the play one of the more moving that I have seen. With the characters and their motivations so clearly delineated, the sheer misery and futility of the end is truly tragic, helped here by a gorgeous final burst of choral singing by the cast. But it's a long time coming, and with no real charisma from Edmund, no sparks between him or either of his adulterous lovers, and with much of the play's tension dissipated by the rigours of the space, it seems a long time to stand.