A collaboration between great guest director and great company can create really wonderful work. The last time I saw a production by Jonathan Miller, it was his wonderful Hamlet at the Tobacco Factory, the first time that company had been directed by someone other than Andrew Hilton. And Northern Broadsides are always a joy to watch and hear, particularly in their last visit to West Yorkshire Playhouse with She Stoops to Conquer. Yet the collaboration on King Lear produced a show that lacked either the wit and revelatory clarity of Miller’s previous work or the ensemble dynamic of Broadsides’ usual distinctive style. Rather, despite its brevity, this was a frustratingly static and turgid Lear, its individual elements failing to come together.
There were individual elements that worked. Jos Vantyler was an excellent, sparky Oswald, seemingly belonging to an entirely different production. With a certain amount of sly camp, Vantyler created a sassy servant/friend for Goneril, sharp of tongue and quick to defend himself. Yet his cowardice was overt in his shrill calls for ‘help’ and his attempts to flee Edgar, who blindsided him with the oldest trick in the book – a ‘what’s that?’ to distract the aggressor before stealing his dagger. While brassier than the other performances, Vantyler found subtlety in a full characterisation that was lacking in almost every other performance.
I begin with Oswald because this is a production that has been praised in reviews for its clarity and immediacy, particularly in the sound of Lear performed in Northern accents, and Vantyler’s performance with its more complex characterisation is perhaps the one that worked against this the most. Yet I found the vocal work the most dispiriting aspect of this production. Sean Cernow as Edmund delivered his lines at a glacial pace, and for his first scenes almost always sitting down at the same time; this was by far the dullest Edmund I’ve ever seen, exchanging dynamism for a louche, lurking presence so deep in the shadows that I could barely see him (though could make out the occasional nice gesture, such as a rubbing together of hands when following Goneril offstage). While he made for a fine visual presence, particularly in his token tipping of a hand to suggest his obeisance, his vocal performance was so ponderous that the scenes lost any momentum. By contrast, Jack Wilkinson’s Edgar spoke at such a breakneck pace that his lines regularly didn’t begin until the second or third word, his elisions and runnings together making much of his dialogue intelligible (at least from my position at the back of the theatre).
Where the vocal performances worked better, it was because of a down-to-earth quality that domesticated the relationships, often to great effect. Barrie Rutter played Lear for bathos rather than pathos, offering the shrugs and sententiae of a patriarch comfortable in his own slippers and living room. This created a character who was quickly out of his depth as he found the politicking of his daughters (Nicola Sanderson as a caricatured evil sister Regan, veering between petulance, seduction and rage; Helen Sheals as an uncomplicated, angry Goneril) outside of his range of capabilities. Rutter was wonderful in the mad scenes, offering a downplayed ‘Blow winds’, some fatherly advice to Poor Tom, and a kindly comfort to Gloucester; but lacked a climax in either narrative or emotional terms. The latter was denied through the continual downplaying of emotion; the former through a bizarrely blocked ending that had two characters carry on Cordelia in a sheet, blocking Lear from view until he sat down quietly next to his daughter. I’ve never seen a Lear robbed of an entrance in this way, and the production’s seeming reluctance to allow any moment to resonate or have impact damaged the ending beyond repair.
This was symptomatic of Miller’s direction throughout. Characters almost never touched one another and barely looked at one another – at times it felt that Rutter was giving a one-man show while the rest of the cast stood stock still respectfully. Movement sequences were abysmal: the flimsy waving of swords between Kent, Edmund and Oswald had no spatial logic (Oswald wanted to run away from Kent, but nothing was stopping him) nor dramatic tension (no-one did anything other than posture). The final fight between Edgar and Edmund broke with the style of the entire rest of the production to go into slow-motion for an overlong and visually boring set of swings and near-misses, before Edgar repeated the same trick of stealing a knife and stabbing it anticlimactically into his foe. Goneril’s sudden ‘passionate’ kiss of Edmund was stilted, as if imported awkwardly into the scene. Most frustratingly, the blinding of Gloucester (the other of the production’s two ‘theatrical’ moments) was played in silhouette against blinding floodlights pointed into the audience – a visually arresting statement, but one which completely obscured the servant and Cornwall’s struggle, and which also denied the audience any sight of what had actually happened to Gloucester, as the actor was immediately hurried offstage.
The seeming need to bring the play down in two hours 45 minutes led to further choices seemingly designed to expedite events at the cost of clarity – or even a simple pause for reaction or reflection. I didn’t miss the joint-stool scene, although it required Edgar in particular to cycle through his characters even more quickly than usual. The cutting meant that the battle was over before Edgar had a chance to announce it, but more problematically other scenes were conflated in a way that undermined their integrity – the all-important revival of Gloucester (a fine John Branwell) after the ‘fall’ from Dover cliffs was undercut by having Rutter’s Lear dithering about upstage in a slow meandering approach for the entire sequence.
The production was set on a relatively small chessboard-patterned platform amidst a darkened stage, and the spatial organisation was again mismanaged atrociously. Actors seemed unclear whether they were walking between the platform and the wings in character or not, and the entrances and exits were frustratingly perfunctory. The void was barely used, but the platform itself was so small and cramped, dominated by a horizontal standard atop two posts (reminding me of nothing so much as a big washing line), that the actors had little room to move and were often clustered in unlikely, artificial tableaux. A further issue this occasioned was the lack of supporting players. Goneril’s complaints about the recklessness of Lear’s entourage were met by Rutter with apparently genuine confusion and cries of ‘what?’, which were understandable given that Lear never arrived on stage with more than two silent knights in addition to the Fool and Kent. Between the lack of dynamism between actors, the silence of the soundscape and a sparsely populated stage, the production never gave the sense of there being anything at stake.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t flashes of interest, largely limited to particular line readings. Edmund’s choice to say ‘I’ve seen drunks do worse in sport’ in scorn after cutting his own hand was a nice moment of self-repulsion. Goneril’s open declaration to Regan of her being poisoned was a bittersweet moment of triumph, although undercut weirdly by there not being enough attendants onstage for anyone to obey Albany’s instruction to escort her off, leaving Regan walking off rather incongruously. The opening scene was full of subtle foreshadowing, such as Andy Cryer’s gloriously evil Cornwall whipping the map away from Albany after Lear’s instruction to divide Cordelia’s portion between them, and Regan and Goneril’s reactions to the repeated acknowledgement of Cordelia being their father’s favourite. And amid the relatively lacklustre performances, John Gully managed to give Albany real purpose and a sense of leadership.
The production’s highlight, however, was Fine Time Fontayne as the Fool, the only character who offered a genuinely fresh interpretation. Fontayne’s Fool was angry, his bitter retorts to Lear never carrying humour beyond the superficial. While he offered the occasional sympathetic glance at his master, the Fool here served an important function as voice of frustration and truth, he pointing out with absolute clarity the state of things and Lear’s own folly. In a production lacking in focus and interest, the Fool became a welcome focus.