Review. RSC King Lear, funnily enough.

This production was given mixed reviews for all sorts of reasons. Most of which were fairly routine and no big deal.
Sher’s delivery was flattened and monotonous, possibly to hint at the mechanical certainty of senility; there was more than a hint of Albert Finney in ‘The Dresser’;  the two ugly sisters were too ugly; the staging payed lip-service to the bleak world of Francis Bacon and Samuel Beckett, but without the impact.
A solid effort from Sher and a few other parts, but not an overwhelming tragic experience. That was the general critical consensus.

When I saw it at The Barbican, on Armistice Day, the stage elevator broke down during the Storm scene and the show had to stop, in the best church-hall tradition. Lear and the Fool trapped and frozen on the peak, while, presumably, sweating stage-hands strained to untangle the machinery. This technical disaster didn’t kill the show as much as it might have. The scene was almost over, and hadn’t exactly floored us anyway. The breakdown and extra interval was a bit of a novelty.
I had hoped that the problem was in raising the glittery Storm-scene drapes, since the general effect they had created from the start was a ringer for the Ghost in Scooby-Doo.

More serious was the constant mis-directed humour. Edmund’s camp bitchiness made him a sympathetic figure, and almost turned Lear into a Donald McGill Mother-in-Law. When the ground should have been opening up under our feet, and a world of treachery threatening, another smart-alec gesture and cheap laugh would pop up to break the spell. Lear’s growing insanity was just a scream.
But the truly disturbing thing was hearing the audience titter at Gloucester’s blinding – which was one scene not played for laughs.
If one of the most horrific scenes in Shakespeare doesn’t instil fear and pity, is Tragedy still relevant? And whose fault is that – in the week America surrendered to Trump?
Was it simply the result of the previous gags in the production? The audience being primed to laugh by the direction. Or have we reached a more worrying stage when an audience is unable to be dramatised by one of the most searing spectacles in Shakespeare after watching months of baby-slaughter in Syria and the spectacle of global political anarchy. Have Shakespeare audiences been so traumatised by the moral and intellectual collapse that drama no longer works?
Has Shakespeare been emasculated in his 400th Anniversary year? Is it reasonable to expect art to be able to cope with the degree of modern horror?
I understand that the production of Lear at the Old Vic also pantomimes Gloucester’s blinding. I hope it demonstrates a better understanding of the Theatre of the Absurd than the RSC.


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