From nothing, whole worlds – Circa Theatre’s 40th Birthday production of King Lear

Circa Theatre presents:
William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR

Director: Michael Hurst
Set and Lighting: Andrew Foster
Costumes: Gillie Coxill
Music and Sound: Jason Smith
Producer: Carolyn Henwood

King Lear – Ray Henwood
Earl of Gloucester – Ken Blackburn
Goneril – Carmel McGlone
Regan – Claire Waldron
Cordelia – Neenah Dekkers-Reihana
Fool – Gavin Rutherford
Duke of Kent – Stephen Papps
Edmund – Guy Langford
Edgar – Andrew Paterson
Duke of Albany – Todd Rippon
Duke of Cornwall – Peter Hambleton
Oswald – Nick Dunbar

With: Alex Halstead, Callum McSorley, Charlotte Cook, Connor McNabb, Hailey Ibold,
Jamie Wallace-Thexton, Jordan Murphy, Kelly Willis-Pine, Monica Reid, Morgan Hopkins,
Olivia Fox and Samantha Geraghty

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 14th May, 2016

Shakespeare got his “King Lear” story from an early chronicler, Holinshed, (who had in turn got it from an earlier source). As well as this there had been an anonymous stage adaptation of the story “doing the rounds” and performed in London about ten years before Shakespeare’s play appeared. Both of these told the story of the semi-legendary Leir of Britain and his three daughters Gonorilla/Gonerill, Regan/Ragan and Cordeilla/Cordella. In both Holinshed’s version and the anonymous play, there is a happy ending, with the aged king reinstated on the British throne by his daughter Cordelia’s arrival with her husband the King of France’s troops to defeat the armies of the traitorous dukes of Albany and Cornwall.

Shakespeare’s dramatisation, with its bleaker denouement to the story held the stage until the Puritans closed down all the theatres in 1642. With the Restoration theatres were reopened, but a new generation of playgoers found the uncompromising tragedy of the Bard’s Lear too much to stomach – this  encouraged the Poet Laureate of the age Nahum Tate to rewrite the play along the ”happy ending” lines of the earlier versions. It wasn’t until over a century later that the great actor Edmund Kean reinstated Shakespeare’s tragic end to the drama – and even then the battle for fidelity’s sake continued to be fought well into the first half of the twentieth century over heavily cut scripts, and reducing or taking out supporting roles by various managers, directors or actors themselves, wanting to emphasize the role of the eponymous leading character.

Today, people responsible for productions pride themselves upon up-to-the-minute historical research and textual fidelity, even if there’s an equally compulsive desire on the part of directors to update the context of the play’s action, ostensibly for purposes of better connecting with modern audiences. It seems that British comedian Michael Flanders’ throwaway line during the course of his and Donald Swann’s revue “At the Drop of a Hat” concerning a dissertation on Tudor England theatrical performance – “Anything to stop it being done straight!” has become true of most present-day performances of theatrical and operatic classics.

Stage traditionalists must feel as though they get a hard time of it these days, but they can take heart from the pleasure and satisfaction to be had when encountering updated productions whose creators and organizers know what they’re about. So it was on Saturday night at Circa Theatre with director Michael Hurst’s production of Lear, which seemed to me to be securely grounded in its own “time”, the ambience suggesting the Second World War era, and the context one of military conflict. Once the frisson of encountering the update’s impact at the play’s very beginning – a shadowy, almost “film noir” scenario featuring people furtively smoking and soldiers with guns checking the environs in a “put that light out” kind of way – had been squared up to, and the King and his court been introduced to us in their gloriously-arrayed mixture of 1940s military and civilian clothes, we settled down to listening “past” our visual realignments and into the heart of the business, contained of course in the language and its interchanges.

Lear’s court resembled a smartly-run consortium’s board-room, one involving both military and civilian personnel. And there, in the commanding personage of Ray Henwood was the king himself, autocratic and imperious, walking with a stick, and wielding it with complete authority. His daughters and their respective entourages awaited the King’s pleasure, Goneril and Regan, the two eldest, seeming to anticipate the demand that they declare absolute and unequivocal love to their father. The elder sisters spoke in reply first, Carmel McGlone’s Goneril honeyed of voice, beautifully modulated and completely without spontaneity, and Claire Waldron’s Regan fulsomely sing-song but mechanical, and sounding increasingly like clockwork as she proceeded – both declaring their actual feelings and intentions as clearly to all excepting their father as if they had spoken their thoughts out loud.

A marked contrast came with Lear’s questioning of his youngest daughter, Cordelia, portrayed with youthful wholeheartedness by Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, her sincerity palpable and vulnerable in manner, but steady and unswerving in effect, engendering shock among allies and antagonists alike – the King’s anger was perfectly in context with his disappointment at Cordelia’s “Nothing” answer and his “Nothing will come of nothing” warning reply. The reaction to all of this of Lear’s uniformed right-hand man, the Duke of Kent (played by Stephen Papps) I found a bit puffy and blustery of manner at first, but once his defence of Cordelia in front of Lear had earned him his banishment, and occasioned his return in disguise to continue serving his master, I thought the actor’s portrayal as a loyal retainer deeply moving, rich in truth and honesty.

Articulating his “stand up for bastards” speech while having his way on an office desktop with some acquiescent “temp” girl, was something of a virtuosic theatrical feat on the part of Guy Langford, playing the role of Edmund, illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, a loyal friend of Lear’s. Very much the young rake on the make, Edmund racily and almost engagingly outlined for us his scheme to undermine his half-brother’s legitimacy in his father’s eyes, and wheedle his way into favour with either (or both) Goneril and Regan. He made the most of his “heavenly portents” speech before convincing his brother Edgar that the latter had incurred their father’s displeasure, and that he (Edgar) had better go and hide out until further notice. I liked how Edgar (played by Andrew Paterson) convincingly presented a more rough-hewn, less “courtier’d” manner than his half-brother, credible in his despair at his father’s anger, and his bewilderment regarding what he might do to right the alleged wrong.

Edgar’s course, to take refuge in the countryside as a beggar, brought him into direct contact with the estranged Lear and his Fool (the latter a virtuoso portrayal by Gavin Rutherford of one of literature’s most powerful archetypes, the wise jester – more of him below….) at the height of a storm. In some of the most visceral language ever accorded the elements by any storyteller or poet, the words became stinging, biting, oak-cleaving cataracts and hurricanes. All of this was superbly and variedly detailed by Henwood, his character’s troubled place in the cosmos transfixed at that moment by a squared volume of rain-spattered light mid-stage, drawing our focus into the square and similarly flailing our own sensibilities – a most telling piece of interpretation and production. Having been then directed by the solicitous Kent to a hovel, Lear encountered Edgar, disguised as “Poor Tom”. Andrew Paterson’s portrayal forcibly put across the character’s deranged quality with heightened volume and dramatic gesture. Though much of his diatribe couldn’t be deciphered, his piteous sotto-voce asides kept the character’s purpose clear for us amid all the bluster.

So to Gavin Rutherford’s Fool, something of a “Billy-Bunter in an airman’s cap” Fool, but obviously a force to be reckoned with, a presence off whom Lear’s own words bounced and faltered, as when the king responded to the banter about making something from nothing with a hollow-sounding and throat-catching “Nothing can be made out of…….” And how tellingly was the Fool’s “old before thy time” jibe underscored with just enough music of derangement as to indicate Lear’s unnerving by his own fears, with “Keep me in temper! – I would not be mad!” Throughout, the characterizations of each of the actors made me more aware than ever of how both the Fool and Kent tried to protect and safeguard their lord and master, Kent from his enemies without and the Fool from Lear’s own foibles within.

As for Ken Blackburn’s playing of Gloucester, the portrayal graciously and naturally conveyed the character’s one-dimensional amiability right at the outset, along with a comprehensive lack of insight into either of his sons’ true mettle. This obtuseness led to his downfall at the hands of ruthless ambition – and only in the wake of his savage blinding by both Regan and her husband Cornwall in revenge for his continued support of the king, did the first glimmerings of truth begin to shine for him from within. The blood-drenched beginning of this process brought us into direct contact with Peter Hambleton’s single-minded depiction of Cornwall’s ugly thrust towards power, and, even more disturbingly, Regan’s naked blood-lust, Claire Waldron here most viscerally and repellently conveying her delight at Gloucester’s disfigurement. Less overtly but as slyly evil was Nick Dunbar’s beautifully-crafted Oswald, ostensibly a tool of his mistress Goneril’s machinations, his impulses at her beck and call, his manner as pragmatic as any soldier of fortune.

Small wonder, then, that Gloucester’s subsequent wanderings with his son Edgar (disguised as a beggar and becoming his father’s unidentified protector) evoked such pity and even (after his abortive suicide attempt) an almost sacramental transfiguration into a martyr-like figure, one who had paid a price for his understanding of things and for his short-lived reunitement with the child who truly loved him. His coming-together with the crazed Lear on the heath was a moment of sweetness amid the carnage, a briefly applied balm of shared understanding, here, with the flower-bedecked Lear embracing the blinded and blood-drenched figure of Gloucester, their theatrical duet beautifully voiced by both Henwood and Blackburn, a moment for the ages.

With the other treacherous sister, Goneril, and her husband Albany (Todd Rippon subtly and effectively  signalling his ambivalence as a conspirator in the scheme of things, perhaps, like his father-in-law, a man more sinned against, etc….), their dissolution seemed partly wrought by the former’s long-standing marital dissatisfaction. How cruelly and unequivocally Shakespeare characterized this with Goneril’s brief Act 4 tryst with the free-wheeling Edmund, complete with suggestive body-language and hints of impending mutual delight. As for Carmel McGlone’s transported, almost orgasmic delivery of “O, the difference of man and man!”, it ironically brought the house down, the more effectively so for its sudden, highly-modulated expression! By contrast, I thought Todd Rippon nicely judged Albany’s awakening of his own strength of character, both in the face of his wife’s intention to cuckold and usurp him as a husband through Edmund, and in his rediscovery of a sense of loyalty to his king, leading to those words of his bitterly-wrought understanding at the play’s end – “…speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”’.

Director Michael Hurst’s acute observation in his programme note that Lear “goes too far”, beyond what words can say or do, was conveyed in a myriad ways by this production, by its sheer noise, by its stricken silences, by its insensible furies, by its sardonic humour, by its grim desperations and its blazing illuminations  and by its unspeakable brutalities set against displays of equally unspeakable love. On stage were both experienced actors playing in a sense their own ripened experiences, cheek-by-jowl with various youthful players fronting up to snippets of ideas and concepts which had the potential to change, modify, augment, enrich their own as yet youthful existences – Lear’s doomed yet enduring gesture of union with his daughter Cordelia – “we two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage” spoke for this outlandish theatrical amalgam of old and young as beautifully and deeply as any other quality one might think of.  For Circa and for the people involved in this production it all seemed to this audience member as beautiful and as deep as one might have a right to receive.

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