This was my first visit to Shakespeare's Globe in London, and I was nervous about it. When it comes to audiences, I generally subscribe to Sartre's observation "Hell is other people", and I feared that mobile phones, chatting schoolies and coughing pensioners would spoil my enjoyment of this darkest of tragedies. I needn't have worried, however, as the audience added immeasurably to the atmosphere, and indeed to the delivery of the performance.
Last month I set myself the task of seeing and reporting upon every Shakespeare play, and I had done a fair amount of prep for this. I had watched the 1974 NYC Central Park version with James Earl Jones as a powerful Lear. The full version of this is on YouTube, and is well worth watching. Incidentally, two facts about James Earl Jones: firstly, he was the resonant voice that used to announce "This is CNN"; secondly, and somewhat spookily, his middle name is an anagram of Lear.
As part of my preps I had also watched Ian McKellan in his role with the RSC - an intimate, dark interpretation of the King's descent into madness, which for me highlighted the parallels between this and Krapp's Last Tape. McKellan's Lear is available on DVD, and might be the best ten quid I ever spent.
I also had read through various wikis and notes on the web - all very useful . . . indeed necessary preparation (for me anyway) to get right into the actual play before me.
A rip roaring sing song to mark the start of the formalities, and we were off, with the players immediately playing with style, wit and gusto. I was hooked in immediately.
The story itself concerns four major themes: madness; the betrayal of parents by their offspring; the nature of Nature; and the precariousness of the State. Shakespeare brilliantly weaves these threads together in the development of key characters and monumental stand-alone lines. Joseph Marcel as Lear portrayed the experience of madness, and the fear of it, with a confident fragility, befitting a once all-powerful and arrogant ruler. The performances of the sisters were clever and accomplished, and the interplay between Ruth Everett as Goneril, and Shanaya Rafaat as Regan achieved something unexpected - they actually made me sympathise with their harsh actions, ushering a fifth very modern theme - that of the plight of carers, obliged to look after infirm parents. For me, the stand-out performance, however, was Ruth Everett's Goneril - sassy, sexy, authorative - brilliantly highlighting a reasonable logic to her unpleasant actions. Matthew Romaine as Edgar was fresh and imaginative, and Oliver Boot as Edmund was authoritative and ambitious. Bethan Cullinane pulled off the remarkable schizophrenic feat of playing both the dutiful, maltreated Cordelia, and the bawdy and rude Fool. In a play about madness, this vivid contradiction must surely threaten an actor's own sanity! Dickson Tyrrell as the Earl of Kent was stately and masculine - an honourable and witty alpha male for all seasons; and Rawirir Paratene played the Duke of Gloucester beautifully, highlighting his vulnerability, and misplaced wrath. He also had to suffer the most shocking, and humiliating of desecrations as the Duke of Cornwall pulled out his eyes, crying "out, vile jelly/ where is thy lustre now?"
It was, however, as it should be, Marcell's Lear that dominated, as the bruised, humiliated, yesterday's man, descending into madness. Seeing the play in the wake of the recent Thatcher funeral meant that there were obvious resonances with outside events.
As it finished, we clapped and cheered at once, not just for the players, and the play, but for that mysterious genius who continues to hold a mirror to our sins, fragilities and dreams.
Leaving the theatre, is was bucketing down with rain, so I took refuge in the Globe pub next to the playhouse. As I sat at a bench, I noticed the actors, barely recognisable, drifting in for a deserved after-play symposium. It was strange to watch the Duke of Gloucester revived and wearing a T shirt, and the beautiful Cordelia sipping a glass of wine with a young male companion at the next table. It made me think, how life-affirming and precious live theatre is, and how wonderful these off duty actors were.
Well done, all. I loved it.