Poor Paul Jesson. As Gloucester in Michael Grandage’s award-winning production of King Lear, last night he delivered one of the most powerful renditions of the Dover cliffs scene that I’ve ever been privileged to see. Accompanied by Gwilym Lee as Edgar, he shuffled across the bare bleached boards of the Donmar stage, his white shirt still covered in blood. Lee did tremendous work in manipulating the atmosphere of the scene: grabbing his father in panic, whispering in his ear, evoking a sense of genuine danger. Gloucester responded in kind, sobbing and clutching at his escort’s hand as he steeled himself for his fall. As Edgar wept, Gloucester knelt and raised his hollow eyes to the heavens, defying the fates with a a final desperation that, to me, more effectively captured the despair of suicide than anything else in the play. As he tipped himself forward, falling flat on his face in a swoon, one felt like one was falling with him. In Jesson’s expert hands, it became a climactic moment, a point of resolution and finality that rendered his survival almost perverse.
And then he had to do it again.
Shortly after Derek Jacobi’s Lear entered for his scene with the blind man, the satellite broadcasting this performance of King Lear to cinemas around the world broke down. Error messages replaced the image of the actors, and we overheard a flunky breaking onto the stage to stop Jesson and Jacobi in mid-flow, and a ten minute break ensued while technicians worked frantically to resolve the problem. Eventually, and without preamble, the feed was restored – and a groan went up from the (cinema) audience as Gloucester and Edgar once more hobbled in to repeat their lengthy scene. While there were some pleasures in revisiting such a fantastic scene, and the cameras were better positioned this time, neatly juxtaposing Gloucester’s words about his son with Edgar’s pained reaction, the momentum had been destroyed, and it took some time to get back on track.
The NT Live project is, by and large, a great thing. It allows audiences of tens of thousands to see small productions – in this case, one that had sold out months ago – and allows an intimacy with actors’ faces that is difficult for those without top-price tickets to achieve live. This comes at the expense of the live event of theatre and of audience freedom to see whatever isn’t in the camera’s frame (the inability to gauge how other characters are reacting to speeches is a particular frustration of mine); and, taking a wider view, I’m concerned that the broadcasting of London productions of the “classics” around the world may reinforce latent issues of provinciality and the perceived neccesary superiority of metropolitan art. These are more nuanced arguments, however, that shouldn’t detract from the fact that, fundamentally, I couldn’t afford to get down to London for this Lear, and I would far rather have seen it at my local cinema than not at all.
The technical issues are problematic, though. The idea of doing it live, as opposed to recording and lightly editing it for a delayed broadcast, is in order to promote the experience of the event; but practically, if we’re honest, the liveness adds the excitement that something might go wrong. Yet even though last night was undoubtedly an event, I can’t help but feel that the “liveness” of the hiccups was more of a frustration than a benefit. The sound was abysmal: atmospheric music was delivered through a different channel in the cinema, competing with the dialogue; actors were apparently unused to their microphones, so when Regan thumped her chest or Lear pulled Cordelia into his embrace, the sound boomed uncomfortably; and levels often fluctuated disappointingly. The on-stage introduction with Michael Grandage was reasonably unobtrusive, but was then followed by a pre-recorded film about the wonders of the Donmar; which was not only too long, but was poorly-timed with the live event – Gloucester and Kent were onstage and in dialogue the second that Grandage’s face disappeared, which failed to allow the audience any time to adjust to the different register. These are all problems to be expected, but they are also problems which do affect enjoyment considerably; and as the ticket prices for these screenings creep up (£15, when tickets for the live show could be got for a tenner), I’m inclined to wonder if I would accept a cleaner end product in preference to the problematic idea of liveness.
The problems with the format aside, however, this was a stunning production of Lear, one of the best I’ve had the fortune to see. Central, of course, was Jacobi’s exciting, innovative and fresh performance. Against a bare backdrop of white wooded slats, and in the intimate space of the Donmar, Jacobi found a very human king, whose tenderness towards all three of his daughters (particularly Cordelia) was key to understanding the collapse of his mind. This Lear thrived on love, both as obedience and physical tenderness, and the denial of this “love” by all three daughters was something beyond his ken. He clutched for words, his voice and body shook and he battled for self-control. His inability to grasp a world where his daughters could react so unexpectedly manifested as a slippage of reality, and in the most touching moment of the play he responded to the Fool’s “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise” by, instead of raging, grasping the Fool’s hand for support and murmuring “O let me not be mad”. In an age so dominated by the fear of Alzheimers, Lear’s touching plea for sanity struck an emotional chord.
Jacobi’s performance was characterised by a willingness to surprise the audience as much as his onstage companions with his delivery. This was most obvious in a storm scene which began with the spectacular strobing of lights and roaring of thunder, before suddenly dropping to absolute silence and a stark light as Lear whispered – whispered – his tirade against the storm, slowly building up the volume and power. His ability to curse was impressive (and matched only by Michael Hadley’s hysterical Kent, in disguise as Caius, knocking the wind out of Amit Shah’s superbly uppity Oswald), and he reduced his daughters to tears; as monstrous as the older sisters were, they were never less than Lear’s daughters.
There was not a weak performance among the cast, although Gina McKee’s voice as Goneril was rather raspy in transmission. McKee was also badly served by a horrible piece of editing, in which a jump cut to her for the line “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine” came across as an hysterically comedic aside, a la Miranda Hart. Goneril was the more obviously malicious of the pair, taking the lead in the conspiracy between the older sisters by taking Regan aside after Cordelia’s departure for France. She unbuttoned her dress in seduction of Edmund, and marvelled musingly at the distant sight of her father hunting, which gave her the idea for treating him like a child. Justine Mitchell’s Regan, by contrast, was emotional and unstable, frequently acting with angry tears running down her face, and unable to stand her father’s curses; which, however, only drew her further into stubbornness. She was shocked at her own action in killing Cornwall’s servant, and her later decision to pursue Edmund was justified so uncertainly that laughter was yet again provoked. Her instability and distress rendered her surprisingly sympathetic, but neither of the pair was brought back onstage after their deaths – their story was complete.
Alec Newman’s Edmund was the best kind of Machiavel – hunched, dynamic, bearded and leery. His ingratiating charisma and speed of delivery made the ease of his deceptions believable, and the character’s own physical insecurities went some way towards justifying his behaviours. Addressing the heavens constantly (one nice effect of the NT Live was the inclusion of a “gods-eye camera”, allowing Lear and Gloucester to address the audience directly in their grandstanding moments), his defiance of the universe was engaging, and the audience were allowed to take pleasure in his villainy even as we looked forward to his downfall – his laughter on hearing of Goneril and Regan’s deaths was particularly sickly. In contrast, Gwilym Lee gave a heartfelt performance as Edgar, with the camera lingering on his reaction shots to Lear’s madness and his own father’s mentions of him. The intensity and earnestness of Edgar’s performance turned him into the play’s moral centre, the practical man of strong principles. Their final fight was short and brutal, the hooded Edgar (his jerkin and hood evoked Robin Hood for much of the second act) quickly grabbing Edmund’s sword and slashing him across his stomach; more important was its symbolic significance as Edgar centrally reclaimed his authority.
There was plenty more to enjoy. The always wonderful Ron Cook was a Fool very much in the Sylvester McCoy mode, but given to a desperate sadness rather than antics. He openly challenged Lear, and much of 1.5 was spoken in anger as the Fool used his jibes to rail at his king – at least, until Lear’s mood softened and he attempted to stay reasonable. This Fool was very much Lear’s mirror, but also the emotional crutch needed to keep him functioning. Kent, meanwhile, was reliably entertaining and brusque throughout, while Jesson’s magnificent Gloucester was the equal of Jacobi’s Lear. The scene between the two old companions on Dover beach, watched by an awestruck Edgar, was simply beautiful, the two men crawling on the floor, holding one another and eventually both lying on the stage, spreadeagled and exhausted, as Lear finally admitted he recognised his friend.
There’s too much left to say; but this was, indeed, a Lear for our generation; a pared-back, human reading of the play that focussed on the breakdown of family bonds, the fears of slipping into senility, and the desperate struggle to do the right thing in a world that opposes you at every turn. The close, as Lear slipped back into the arms of Kent and Edgar, was powerfully affecting; but for me, it was the camera’s slow tilt upwards to the white walls above the tableau that resonated beyond the curtain calls – the empty, imposing and constant space of the stage that the characters had entered in good spirits and left in desolation. That NT Live decided to broadcast this production, despite the technical flaws, is something I’ll be long thankful for.