King Lear @ Shakespeare’s Globe

In the programme and on the website for the Globe’s 2022 King Lear can be found a statement that most reviews have leapt upon, noting that director Helena Kaut-Howson, reuniting with Kathryn Hunter twenty-five years after they last collaborated on a production of King Lear, was in a car crash and missed the last two weeks of rehearsals. The note serves as a necessary tribute to the legendary director and as a wish for health, but also as a disclaimer. No other director was appointed; rather, the company worked together to finish bringing King Lear to the stage, and the finished product is, implicitly, not Kaut-Howson’s. The dispersal of agency felt like a fair way of attributing responsibility to a full ensemble of cast and creative collaborators. Whether because of the underlying circumstances, however, or because there were issues with the original vision, this was a Lear without focus or obvious purpose; a production that had ‘no way’.

At its best, the production offered some striking ideas, but those ideas rarely seemed to develop. Upon entering the Globe, the audience was met with a tiring house covered by an enormous curtain depicting a life-size recreation of the Globe’s tiring house, billowing in the breeze. This two-dimensional representation of what was assumed to be underneath was then removed after the first scene, to reveal a dilapidated version of the tiring house, apparently seen from behind with large struts propping it up, and the debris of productions past. The shift appeared to be from the political theatre of a resplendent court to the reality of a crumbling monarchy. But no further attention was then paid to this striking backdrop, the actors simply using the Globe as normal without recourse to the public-facing version of England’s court. It established a mood, but seemed uninterested in pursuing this into something that might affect the play’s action.

Hunter’s Lear didn’t help with communicating a purpose to this Lear. Hunter, as always, was a striking performer. Lear was wheeled in a wheelchair, frail and spindly, and tiny compared to everyone else on the stage. The choice to have Hunter play a character who was so limited in his movement – he wasn’t confined to his wheelchair, but moved only slowly when out of it – seemed a waste of Hunter’s extraordinary physical dexterity, which was only really glimpsed in the storm scene, as Lear marched one step at a time downstage, leaning heavily into the imagined wind. But otherwise, this Lear seemed barely to change. He began frail and acid-tongued; he ended frail and somewhat softer in his voice; but the consistency of his disoriented, offbeat response to the world around him made this the most static Lear I’ve ever seen. The most effective moments played for pathos, as when getting into a metal bathtub with Kwaku Mills’s Edgar and reaching quizzically towards the ‘philosopher’. But for a rare Globe production built around a star performance, Lear felt bizarrely peripheral to the whole enterprise, a placeholder around whom others fought.

The remainder of the performances were solid without surprises, and felt isolated within a production that never made sense of quite how any of these people related to one another and to the broader society of which they were a part. The programme claimed that the production took place ‘in a decaying modern society. The world we live in now’, but costumes and weapons felt picked randomly from the Globe’s dressing-up box. While aesthetic unity is far from a prerequisite for a successful production, the lack of any frame of reference made the stakes hard to discern. Emma Ernest’s boyish King of France took over the lines of various of Cordelia’s servants, making the foreign power seem like an informal household and France himself like a servant; Ryan Donaldson’s open-shirted, long-haired Edmund felt integrated in a gothic romance where he was the lead; Ann Ogbomo’s Mohawk-wearing Goneril had stepped straight out of a futurist dystopia while Diego Matamoros’s Gloucester seemed stuck in a period-set production. Within all this, the attempts of Gabriel Akuwudike’s anxious, bluff Kent to fit himself into new situations and allegiances seemed perhaps the best metaphor for the production itself – an attempt to try and make sense of something where the rules were no longer known, and where centres of authority had been dispersed.

The most interesting decision was Michelle Terry’s doubling of the Fool with Cordelia. Cordelia was hard to get a handle on, her resistance to her father’s initial game seeming unnecessary and wilful; next to her two smiling, calm, professional sisters, she seemed childish. Terry was more successful as the Fool. With white face make-up and baggy Chaplinesque trousers, she played the Fool as a sad Clown, wandering slowly around the stage and delivering bitter truths with a blunt directness that Hunter’s Lear seemed disinclined to resist. Notwithstanding the sardonic humour, the Fool’s care for Lear made sense of the doubling, the two characters a continuation of one another. More confusingly, though, the Fool laid down onstage and apparently died after bidding Lear goodnight; but when Cordelia returned at the head of the French army, she was wearing the Fool’s trousers under her cloak. The purpose of this seemed unclear; if this was purely to underline the doubling, it seemed unnecessary; if it was meant to imply that the Fool was a disguised Cordelia, then the lack of any signposting left its relationship to the wider plotting fuzzy at best.

Cordelia’s virtue in relation to her two sisters was unclear at first. Ogbomo and Marianne Oldham played Goneril and Regan as calm, Goneril almost sociopathically so as she stood quietly and stock still, smiling, watching events unfold around her. Regan was less patient than Goneril, and quickly showed an unhealthy pleasure in moments of violence. As with Lear, though, the two performances never really developed; Goneril’s detachment only really wavered during the moment alone with Edmund where she wrapped her legs around him, and Regan’s callous enjoyment of violence and complacent smile continued until she choked on the poison fed her by Goneril. Donaldson did his best to enliven the subplot, but even his attempts to pick out audience members to accuse of various sins seemed forced, and he resorted to scenery-chewing in his later scenes as he roguishly dithered between the two sisters and then died loudly and long.

If any character seemed to experience development, it was Edgar. Mills began as a bespectacled, bookish young man, laughing openly at Edmund’s musing on a book of prognostications. His angst as he fled and marked himself up introduced a note of desperation, and Mills was especially effective as he tried to communicate his distress to the audience, agonising from the edges of the stage before bracing himself to return to his Poor Tom role to confront Lear or his father. The slow care and growing responsibility as he looked after Gloucester gave him purpose, though the choice to have him only accidentally kill Oswald (Max Keeble) when the steward ran at him and ended up with a knife in his stomach seemed to somewhat undermine this purpose. By the production’s end, Edgar’s defeat of Edmund (in a somewhat perfunctory and underwhelming fight) felt like a completion of a journey for this character at least. But when Lear then emerged, pushing Cordelia’s body in a wheelchair, the relative success of the Edgar storyline only served to highlight how relatively sidelined the Lear story seemed to have been.

During the stately first half of the final dance, the quietness with which the actors returned to their feet and began moving slowly about the stage felt ominous, anticlimactic; a sudden uptick in the tempo and the emergence of smiles and some energy felt welcome, but late. Writing this on the day that Peter Brook – director of one of the most important productions of Lear of the twentieth century – died, the temptation to compare this Lear to Brook’s is not flattering. Brook’s bleak, nihilistic Lear felt charged with meaning, a reckoning with the devastation of the world and order, a lament in many ways for the drama of life. This Lear – whether it’s Kaut-Howson’s or not – rather felt empty. And if it at least conjured some resonant images in the tiny, fragile Lear being cradled by the enormous Kent as the production moved to its close, it’s unlikely to supplant Kaut-Howson and Hunter’s previous collaboration in the collective memory.

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