Thy Virtues I Seize Upon
Between April 2006 and April 2007, the Royal Shakespeare Company embarked on a daring project: the staging of the complete works of William Shakespeare over a single year. Yes, that's right. That's all thirty-seven plays, including The Two Noble Kinsmen and King John and all the poems too. I was fortunate enough to catch Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar from this series while in England last year but I must admit I was underwhelmed. The reputation of the RSC is such that one imagines the company to be incapable of delivering a poor performance. Julius Caesar, however, was a disappointment because of its lacklustre acting performances and ill-judged blocking; and even the vibrant Romeo and Juliet, didn't really light a fire in my belly as it was essentially a straight reading of the text with little innovation or freshness.
I am of the generation, you see, that immediately thinks of drag queens, drug popping and teen gangs when you mention Romeo and Juliet - or of four boys in a boarding house acting out all the play's characters. Prospero is Lim Kay Siu, stuck on an island listening to gamelan music; The Taming of the Shrew is played out in a US high school; and Richard III is a fascist in World War II England. Shakespeare is never simply Shakespeare; it is only ever Shakespeare viewed through a distinctly different lens. BBC productions set in Elizabethan times seem as quaint to me as the videocassettes they come on. All these productions of Shakespeare I have seen on film and stage (especially in Singapore) have hardwired me to view traditional stagings as nothing more than curios and really rather pointless.
Leave it to director Trevor Nunn to slap me across the face with an embroidered glove. Here, with this traditional staging (okay, so the action is transposed to Tsarist Russia, but this is merely a surface change), Nunn left me with no doubt that I was witnessing a great work of art. And it is always an exhilarating experience to be in the presence of something you greatly admire even if you do not necessarily derive great pleasure from it.
My admiration was excited, in this case, by the way the play's themes and characters were brought to life not only by remarkably high production values (despite some technical difficulties with the lights on the night I went) but also one of the finest ensembles I have ever seen. Yes, I'm sure there are some who will still complain that the staging, clean and confident, was still too conventional and safe - and I cannot entirely disagree. However, I defy anyone to deny that this was a consummately well-crafted piece of theatre, with lighting, sound and sets designed for maximum dramatic effect - the backdrop which slowly decayed from an opulent castle to a storm-battered hut was clichéd but effective - and powerful actors totally immersed in the moment.
Because of the quick scene changes and the proscenium thrust of the stage, often, actors were left prominently on stage alone or just in pairs, armed with nothing but wordy dialogue. Nonetheless, I always found myself utterly drawn to the actors' every word. This was because the actors turned in powerful performances which easily filled the entirety of the otherwise-bare stage. It was not simply the booming of their voices as their tongues confidently wrestled with Shakespeare's intricate dialogue that held my attention but also the electrifying stage presence that they brought to bear on stage. The deliciousness of such flamboyant characters as Goneril, Regan and Lear's Fool, in particular, gave Frances Barber, Monica Dolan and Sylvester McCoy respectively much opportunity to command the stage and this they did with aplomb: the unadulterated glee that these actors invested their performances with made them an utter delight to watch. The sight of Regan, for example, squealing and clapping her hands like an excited schoolgirl as her husband brutally crushed the eyes of the captive Gloucester was disturbing to watch - not least because Dolan played the part without a hint of awareness of just how grotesque her actions were.
William Gaunt who played the pitiable Gloucester, betrayed by his son and abused by Regan, impressed for a very different reason: it was in his quiet moments that his performance was most powerful. He carried himself as if completely smothered by a great, impenetrable shroud of sadness and guilt; a particularly moving scene was of the actor crying and utterly alone as the sounds and flashes of an offstage battle crashed dramatically around him. For me, Gloucester, like Macduff in Macbeth, is the real emotional heart of the play and Gaunt did him justice. I was also struck by how Ben Meyjes, playing Edgar, the soppy juvenile lead in the early scenes of the play, completely transformed the way he carried his body when he first emerged disguised as a feral man of the woods to escape identification and capture. Meyjes was not only completely hidden by heavy makeup but the shape of his entire body had changed: now he lumbered across the stage like a wild animal, arms swinging madly.
(Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Duke of Kent who, here, somehow managed to walk around completely unrecognised by his closest friends simply by pulling a skullcap over his head. Ridiculously gullible noblemen, letters that reveal all and yes, improbably effective disguises are just some of the Shakespeare standbys revisited in Lear).
I also liked how Nunn and his cast played up the dichotomies of hero and anti-hero, victim and offender. While I felt he could have pushed this even further, there were clear attempts at the start of the play to humanise the frustration that Goneril and Regan feel when their father starts to make unruly demands even after abdicating his throne to his two daughters. Similarly, I felt that Nunn tried to flesh out Cordelia (Romola Garai) as more than just a naïve saint-like character in contrast to her two sisters. In this production, when Lear asks Cordelia to praise him as her sisters have, she laughs, imagining her father's request to be a joke. This risky choice briefly gave the play a dangerous edge, but it was not really followed through.
Garai, alone amongst the cast, sometimes struck me as being self-conscious; I felt she played to the audience rather than being immersed in the character and story. Nunn's direction did not help her. For example, when she was reunited with Lear, she faced the audience to speak her lines when it would have been far more natural for her to have whispered them into her father's ear.
Nonetheless, I appreciate that Nunn attempted to explore the complexities of her character because it is something I have always felt strongly about: is there not something inherently self-righteous about the way Cordelia steadfastly refuses to express any words of tenderness at all to her father, even though she knows it will make him happy? I'm not saying she should glibly heap false praise on her father, but are a few sweet words not just something we say as a sign of affection to our lovers and family members on special occasions? Her words, true as they may be, have always seemed intentionally hurtful to me. Also if she truly loved her father, why leave him at the hands of her sisters? Surely, she knew of their crazed bloodlust; such a thing does not develop overnight.
No review of this production would, of course, be complete without looking at the actor who played Lear. Words cannot express how excited I was to finally be able to see Sir Ian McKellen onstage after watching his incredibly nuanced performances in Richard III and Gods and Monsters and being awed by the presence and dignity he brought to his roles in the X-Men and Lord of the Rings blockbusters. To breathe the same air as this man - a hero for his courage, intelligence and wit onscreen and off - was reason enough for me to have goose-bumps as the curtain rose.
Yet, in a press interview, McKellen said that he saw the play as an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle. Despite the title of the play, it can be argued that Lear is not necessarily the strongest or most memorable character in the play. The conflict between Edgar and his jealous brother Edmund, for example, can stand on its own; and the three daughters, like the three witches in Macbeth, have captured the imagination of generations of audiences. What I appreciated was that there was no distracting gap between McKellen's performance and that of the other actors, despite the Hollywood star power that McKellen's name brought to the play.
Credit goes to the sterling quality of the other actors, of course, but also to McKellen who could have used his showy role to overshadow the others. Instead, his Lear was only too painfully human and real - he really reminded me of those old ah peks who love the sound of their own voices and just go on and on, unaware of how grating they are. At the same time, one can also find such old men sweetly bemusing and McKellen's performance captured that contradiction. He stood on the fine line between loveable fuddy-duddy and cantankerous old man, making it difficult for us to say whether the reactions of his daughters to his actions were reasonable.
McKellen's majestic yet sensitive and nuanced performance exemplifies
the complexities I had hoped to see more of in Lear. Nonetheless,
this production certainly made up for its safe directorial choices in
other ways: notably the sheer force and presence of the actors. My experience,
as a whole, is one that I will remember for a long time to come, not
only as an audience member but also as a theatre educator and practitioner.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /