Sunday, August 19, 2012



IN Queen Lear, currently playing at the MTC around the corner from the National Gallery, Robyn Nevin is the matriarch, instead of your usual patriarch in Shakespeare’s play. I’m not sure why the gender has changed, except to say that if the celebrated Robyn Nevin wants to tackle the great Lear, then she should, and being female should not be an impediment.

I saw a modernised version of King Lear several years ago with Frank Gallaher in the title role. He gave it everything, and it wasn’t his fault it was awful. Someone in their infinite wisdom thought it would be trendy to modernise it, and we got metropolis where there might be blasted heath, and a car on the stage, culprits being fingerprinted and mobile phones incongruously sticking out of people’s pockets.

So it was with some relief that this time I saw the blasted heath being replicated, and everything more or less pared back- not too muck trickery, nice and simple and relying on that beautiful, rich and evocative language.

I guess it was a bit disconcerting at first to see a queen when once there was a king, getting ready to retire, and looking forward to the easy life, living with her favoured daughter, and drinking champagne after the division of her kingdom. The three daughters of the queen looked on, expectantly. None of them overly impressed during the course of the play. For all its gender shifting, besides Nevin, it was the men who stole the play. Richard Piper, as Gloucester, was, like Lear, cocky and unsuspecting at first, and then convincing as the poor man brutalised by cruel, cruel people. In the printed version, the plucking of grey hairs from his beard by Goneril is truly shocking, and this wasn’t done to maximum effect, but the removal of his eyes more than made up for it, with the gut wrenching issuing of blood.

Kent, played by Robert Menzies, was mesmerising. He is a terrific actor. I saw him many years ago playing Hamlet, and he features as a blind man in ‘Cactus’, one of Paul Cox’s best films. I don’t know if his career has properly kicked on or not- does he enjoy making these local plays?- but he has always deserved attention.

Edmund began convincingly, but his role as the bastard son seemed to diminish, and the menace he provides in the play dissipated somewhat, overshadowed by the adoring daughters. His thirst for recognition from his careless father is a great aspect of the play- ‘there was great sport at his making.’

Edgar likewise diminished in stature. He appears on a bicycle at the start, which was unnecessary, and he was serviceable as the wary and gullible son, very good as ‘Poor Tom’, and then dull in the last thirty minutes or so around the time he answers the herald. The knife scene with Edgar was overlong and clunky. He seemed to me to lose energy, like he was going through his paces.

Oswald was suitably stupid, Albany was inexplicably in a wheelchair, and Cornwall was callous and efficient in his dealings with Gloucester. The men were, overall, by far the most interesting people, in a play in which the daughters are so crucial, and the main man has been turned into a woman.

Having said that, Robyn Nevin more than held her own. Over confident and arrogant at the start, she did need pulling back a little, as Kent unsuccessfully tried to do. Her madness was equally convincing. Her hair was tatty and had turned white, and there was pathos in how diminished her role had become as she languished in the storm and chose frightful partners in Poor Tom and the disguised Kent.

Regan was the best of the daughters. Her hair was slicked back tightly, her features severe, tall, thin and calculated, she had trouble written all over her stern countenance. Goneril was more womanly, less severe, but hardly maternal in her dealings with her ageing mother. She, with Albany, certainly had the nicer of the two husbands.

The biggest letdown for me, for the whole play- and she has been mercilessly castigated by some critics- was Cordelia, just about my favourite female character, along with Kitty in Anna Karenina, in all of literature. Cordelia, in the printed text, is so selfless, and beautiful, and moving, as she welcomes her poor father after such a long period of abuse, and attempts to heal him, even dies for him, as her heart is broken at the sight of his wretched condition. The stage actress in this instance seemed to struggle with her lines and at times spoke harshly in the manner of her evil sisters, losing the lovely soft cadences for which Cordelia impresses. I especially love the words ‘remediate’ and 'aidant':
'All blest secrets,

All you unpublish'd virtues of the earth,

Spring with my tears! be aidant and remediate

In the good man's distress! Seek, seek for him;

Lest his ungovern'd rage dissolve the life

That wants the means to lead it.'

Lear’s Fool is another memorable presence in the play, but (she) was reduced to being merely a sideshow. It seemed they couldn’t make up their mind whether they wanted to use her or not.
The cast received lukewarm applause. I was sitting in the second or third row, and felt embarrassed for them, delivering such a great and vital play to an audience that was hardly appreciative. I imagine the audience felt, like me, that there were things to recommend the play, but ultimately it all collapsed, especially in the final act of the play. Here we had actors going through the motions, with a struggling Cordelia, an awkward Kent looking on at the proceedings, Edgar hovering uselessly in the background, Albany sitting in his silly wheelchair, and, sadly, Cordelia unsure of the delivery of her lines, telling he mother she loves her and feigning bewilderment at her mother’s tragic condition.

‘You do me wrong to take me out of the grave.

Thou art a soul in bliss

But I am bound upon a wheel of fire

That mine own tears do scald like molten lead.’


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