Tag Archives: shakespeare

Review: King Lear at the Young Vic

Having received a critical drubbing at its opening in Liverpool (with even lead actor Pete Postlethwaite admitting it was a troubled production), the Headlong company’s King Lear comes to the Young Vic with something to prove. Has director Rupert Goold, previously feted for his stunning Macbeth, finally met his match with one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays?

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Thankfully not. They’ve gone back to the rehearsal room and responded to the critics, bringing an altered and improved piece to the London stage. It is still a flawed production in many ways – the scars of previous mistakes are still visible, and some of the weaknesses have proved uncorrectable or have passed unnoticed – but despite its occasional shaky moments it is carried through by the strength of the cast and the inventiveness of the staging.

Goold is a director with an effortless creativity. Although the design and setting is nothing so special (a dessicated 1980’s Britain), each scene is crafted to precision, from the witty (the athletic track where Edmund and Edgar compete for their father’s affection) to the bold (the final duel, boyish and brutal, between the two brothers), the simple (Lear and the Fool alone in the moonlight) to the macabre (a truly horrific, eyeball biting blinding scene). It is hard to fault the individual scenes; even where they fall a trifle flat (the risible storm dance being the most notable culprit here) the freshness and invention are notable.

But the production never quite achieves any kind of unified vision; themes are touched upon but left unexplored, and the staging veers from one style to another without warning. By all accounts, the play was far more chaotic when it opened in Liverpool, and it is a problem that has not quite been solved. It is all the more surprising from a director who provided such bold (and complete) visions for his previous Shakespearean productions – the arctic tundra of The Tempest, the Stalinist horror of Macbeth. Perhaps it is natural that a play with chaos at its very core should resist cohesive settings, but the production cries out for a stronger vision to draw it together – even chaos can be artfully and consistently composed on the stage.

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Wherever Goold’s invention dries up or is misapplied, however, the cast are there in force to carry the production through. King Lear, perhaps more than many other Shakespeare plays, requires exceptional performances from the entire cast. Almost a dozen different characters are asked to carry the play in turn for their small portion, and a production can be sunk by a dull Edgar, a hammy Edmund, a bland Goneril.

Fortunately, Goold is blessed with an ensemble that has strength in depth; among the best are Forbes Masson’s sinister Scottish Fool, John Shrapnel’s noble Gloucester, and a splendidly villainous turn from Jonjo O’Neil as Edmund. An unimposing Cordelia is perhaps the only weak link.

Attention will inevitably fall on Pete Postlethwaite, wrestling with one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant and challenging parts. He does not give an especially original interpretation of Lear, but he delivers most of the key scenes in standout form – the monologue to his daughters preceding his flight into the storm, his mournful conversation with Gloucester on the cliffs of Dover, the reconciliation with Cordelia and his speech as they are led away to imprisonment are by far the most moving scenes in the production, simply and beautifully played.

This production is not a perfect Lear. Perhaps it is not even a great one, but while it may still be flawed it is always bold, and often quite brilliant.


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Things I Like #2: St Crispin’s Day Speeches

The eve of the battle of Agincourt. The English army, exhausted, disease ridden and demoralised faces a vastly superior French force. All looks lost, until Henry V delivers a speech and inspires his troops to a famous victory. In the original St Crispin’s Day speech, Henry inspires his troops with a careful mixture of patriotism, brotherhood, courage, and the promise of future glory. At least, that’s what he says in Shakespeare’s Henry V. In real life, he apparently took the somewhat more prosaic and honest line of telling his men that as commoners they were unlikely to ransomed,  so they had better fight to the death or win.

Take a look at Kenneth Branagh making a decent fist of Shakespeare’s version…

The stirring eve of a battle speech is now a cliche repeated across hundreds of books and films, from Braveheart to Lord of the Rings. St Crispin’s Day speeches even crops up in the real world from time to time – here’s Branagh again, this time recreating the famous speech made by Colonel Tim Collins on the eve of the second Gulf War…

When they are bad, they are an embarrassing limp mess of cliche. When they are good, they are very, very good. It is hard not to watch Branagh in the two speeches above and not feel that here is a man and a cause worth fighting and dying for. Even though the original St Crispin’s Day speech offers little more motivation than glory and bragging rights for the few who will survive, it is still stirring stuff. The speech by Tim Collins seems to lay out the template for a just war and the way to prosecute it – the ultimate moral bankruptcy of the Iraq escapade just serves to give the it an additional degree of poignant potency.

At the same time, there is a deeply manipulative, unpleasant quality to St Crispin’s Day speeches. Those that make the speeches and give the orders are rarely the ones that have to do the dying (or indeed the killing). That task falls to those deemed disposable, the ones who can’t make pretty speeches but can die well enough to serve a purpose.

In The History of the Peloponnesian Wars and The Travels of Marco Polo, before major battles generals on both sides are often described as giving speeches to their men. Irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of their cause, whether they have started a war to defend the liberty of the people or to enlarge their personal empires, these speeches usually make for stirring reading. As the poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death shows, the death drive in many men is significant (I generalise hugely by saying men, but I think the love of a violent death is more of a masculine trait). All it takes is a little push, a little speech, and many will be willing to die for the cause you have put to them.

And yet, and yet…manipulative as they may be, they offer up a wondrous vision, allow a soldier to step out of a world of pain and glimpse something greater than themselves, something that is worth the risk, pain and struggle. Those of us who live in less heightened circumstances, who face no great physical dangers, can’t help but feel a longing for the clarity of purpose offered by a St Crispin’s Day speech. Listening to one of these speeches, the sense of self fades away. All the worries and concerns and selfishness that dominate day to day life become irrelevant. Self-sacrifice can be one of the most admirable qualities –  it seems to go against all natural interests of self-preservation. This is the true beauty of a great St Crispin’s day speech; not that it inspires people to fight and kill, but that it takes them beyond their own selfish cares, not for the stirring rhetoric, but for its awakening of this spirit of willing self sacrifice, one of the most beautiful facets of the human personality.

P.S. Apologies for the somewhat martial tone of the blog so far this week. I’ve been wrestling with my Tax Return for the past few days, and am thus in the mood for killing (or dying). Finally got it off yesterday, so perhaps will be able to write about something more cuddly in the near future.

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