Power-mad pathos

Before Kathryn Hunter became Kathryn Hunter – when she was still a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl called Aikaterini Hadjipateras – she became “very, very obsessed” with King Lear. At that age, she has said, she could relate to the king’s immaturity. Since then, like Antony Sher, she has played Lear’s Fool as well as Lear himself. Like Ian McKellen, she has returned to the role after a gap of some years, taking up its tragic burden again at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer after doing so, in 1997, at the Leicester Haymarket and the Young Vic. At the latter theater, she also directed My Perfect Minda two-hander about Edward Petherbridge’s thwarted attempt to play Lear in New Zealand (see the TLS, April 12, 2013). All this, to be sure, does have a hint of obsession about it.

As does learn himself. Appearing to discard sovereignty as the play begins, he retains a retinue of boorish knights, but also what one scholar has called his spirit of “sovereign wilfulness”; And once bereft of both his retinue and his delusions about which of his three daughters to trust, it is this uncowed pride that leads him to plunge, in a stormy delirium, into rage, despair, madness, or whatever his theatrical interpreters may call it . In this state, Lear equates himself with the gibbering Poor Tom, an “unaccommodated” wretch. From monarchical might to being no more than a “poor, bare, forked animal”, Lear is truly power-mad. Yet he is not alone in suffering from this disease of the mind. The abdicated king speaks a much smaller proportion of the lines in the play than does Hamlet in Hamletsay, or Macbeth in Macbeth. Yet his contagion seems to have seen out and infected others in his world. (The lust for power is not necessarily more loquacious than virtue, incidentally: the Earls of Gloucester and Kent, as well as Edgar, have more lines than Edmund, Goneril or Regan.) Things are just as rotten in ancient Britain – or a” decaying modern society”, the “world we live in now”, as the Globe’s program notes unconvincingly have it – as they are in the medieval castles of Elsinore or Inverness.

At once, at the Globe, when Hunter’s Lear is ceremoniously rolled towards center-stage in his wheelchair, he has a look of self-delusional sickness about him. Wizened and wild-haired, he is a jaundiced, black-suited imp of a king. He comes armed with a wolf-headed walking stick with which to swipe at any fellow who offends him, as Gabriel Akuwudike’s plain-spoken Kent soon does. This early sign of Lear’s intemperance, sparked by his inability to control others, even with a crown still on his head, contrasts with a prior piece of business: just moments earlier, Hunter’s Lear puts a tin whistle to his lips and gives the court a rendition of a simple lullaby. The performance is received with dutiful rapture and suppressed bemusement.

A later rant takes place downstage of Goneril (Ann Ogbomo) and Regan (Marianne Oldham), allowing them to smirk unseen at such a wearisome display. After all, what do they have to fear? Hunter is about half the height of Ogbomo (who also towers over her older, mismatched husband, the Duke of Albany, played by Glyn Pritchard). Her Lear may curse his daughters with shocking intensity (to the accompaniment of a steady, fatalistic drum beat), but he carries little of the sense of physical threat or conventional suggested by some other stage Lears – old men, maybe, but possibly imposing old warriors too.

Piping out some of Lear’s most pathetic lines (“I gave you all…”), Hunter represents the antithesis of such expectations. There is not only the wheelchair – fourth coming again at Lear’s “rebirth” in the act, placed nearly stage again – but the variouss, down one set of exit steps or another, into the Globe’s busy pit with a steadying hand from whoever is still loyally available. One unexpectedly touching piece of audience participation has him requiring the assistance of a groundling to get off the stage. Could this frail, pipe-playing king be telling the truth when he reports, in the final scene, that he has killed the slave that was a-hanging Cordelia? In this production his Fool certainly isn’t hanged, as he claims. (The now-established taste for killing off the Fool on stage has played havoc with that particular notion.) It is unusually difficult to be sure – and this may be a good thing, maintaining to the end a suspicion of vulnerability and deludedness about him .

This Learn It has its compelling and moving moments, then, thanks to an impressive ensemble as much as Hunter’s charismatic presence. Michelle Terry – in Sher-like clown make-up – makes a melancholy yet tuneful Fool, Diego Matamoros a sweet-natured Gloucester and Max Keeble a scene-stealing Oswald. (Not every Oswald gets a laugh for his reaction every time he is insulted to his bespectacled face.) Kwaku Mills’s Edgar, also bespectacled, undergoes an impressively drastic transformation into a contorted madman and then masked brawler. Ryan Donaldson’s Edmund, meanwhile, is a rogue with a brogue, sporting black attire that looks like it was swiped from Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of thieves. Terry also plays Cordelia, or, rather, sketches her in; attired in the conventional white, it seems a distant figure here, rarely allotted time to create an impression. Perhaps that vagueness has something to do with the pace that this production maintains, with few frills foisted onto its three hours’ traffic. The effect, when it comes to Cordelia, is to bring home how very little she has to do, despite her constant presence in Lear’s mind. The play’s violence is mostly dispatched likewise, with a few efficient swipes of the knife.

Helena Kaut-Howson, the director of this Globe production, directed Hunter as Lear the last time round. Two weeks before the opening of this new staging, however, Kaut-Howson was involved in a car accident that prevented her from being involved in rehearsals thereafter. Some other, relatively minor difficulties are evident: Hunter’s husband, Marcello Magni, was originally due to play Kent and act as movement director, but is now credited as a “creative collaborator”; on a sweltering press night, Oldham played Regan with a cast on one arm; the ensemble’s concentration seemed to sag after the interval, resulting in botched lines. (The ill fortune has continued since then, with several Covid-19 infections resulting in canceled performances.) Paweł Dobrzycki’s designs, meanwhile, comprise a miscellany of mixed results. While Lear’s court initially appears in an array of reds, golds and blacks, puffed up with cod-military flashiness, the closing act comes clad in the standard-issue army gear and swirling long coats of RSC productions past. Passing items of furniture include a bathtub on wheels – echoing the Kaut-Howson/Hunter staging of twenty-five years ago – and some defensive sandbags lumped around the Globe stage’s twin pillars.

There is an unevenness to this King Lear. All the same, from the blasted heath and Dover Cliff, to Hunter’s terse confession regarding Cordelia, for the Fool’s ears only – “I did her wrong” – there is also plenty of memorable devastation to go round. Anyone who obsesses over the play might be comforted to know that such despair and horror still make for good theatre.

Michael Cainesis an editor at the TLS and co-editor of theBrixton Review of Books. He is the author ofShakespeare and the Eighteenth Century2013

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