Talking Movies

February 14, 2013

King Lear

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All dark, and comfortless

The Abbey amazingly hasn’t staged King  Lear since the early 1930s. Director Selina Cartmell thus has no  legendary productions of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy to outshine.

The aged Lear (Owen Roe) has decided to split his kingdom between his three  daughters. But, while the scheming diabolical siblings Regan (Caoilfhionn Dunne)  and Goneril (Tina Kellegher) flatter him to get their rightful shares, Lear’s  only good-hearted daughter Cordelia (Beth Cooke) refuses to lie or exaggerate,  enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Phelim Drew) and Albany (John Kavanagh). Cordelia leaves  without a dowry to become the Queen of France and the noble courtier Kent (Sean  Campion) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He disguises himself to  serve Lear, but the scheming bastard Edmund (Ciaran Mcmenamin) uses the fraught  situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Aaron Monaghan) from the  line of succession to Gloucester (Lorcan Cranitch); exploiting the political  chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Hugh O’Connor) foresaw…

I found myself comparing Cartmell’s interpretation of the text to Sarah Finlay’s 2010 production  starring Ger Adlum because Gaby Rooney’s costume design replicated its  colour-coded royal houses, both productions being indebted to Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. But instead of Finlay’s icily  austere minimalism Cartmell offered rich medieval costuming, wolfhounds lurching  around between scenes, and a second storey built onto the Abbey stage to add a  period gallery to the drunken carousing in castles below. Garance Marnuer’s  layered set design sends a triangle into the audience for characters to deliver  their monologues, so that in the front rows the eye is caught by actors on three  levels; and that’s before the triangle spectacularly rises for the heath scene.  Given such impressive staging the climactic fight with long-staffs between  Edmund and Edgar surprises with its sheer inertness and lack of ambition in  clashing choreography…

Cartmell’s commitment to visual  medievalism though clashes with her highlighting of the paganism in  Shakespeare’s most nihilistic play. ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ proclaims Lear  in a famously pre-Christian thought, and the illuminated paganism is truly  chilling in one scene in which Lear, holding an antler skull to channel power,  calls down a curse on the heavily pregnant Goneril to make her miscarry for her  ill treatment of him. But… there are constant references to Greek philosophers  and Roman gods, and why would they be invoked if you believed in animist gods or  pantheism? Especially as Gloucester’s “As flies are to wanton boys so are we to  the gods/They kill us for their sport” screams of the capricious Greek  divinities. And that’s before you wonder what historical neverland Cartmell has  situated her post-Roman but pre-Christian nations of France and England in…

Cartmell coaxes many strong  performances. Roe is appropriately magisterial as Lear, while Monaghan is  fiercely committed as Edgar’s alter-ego Poor Tom (even if John Healy was not the  only one coughing Gollum), and Cooke’s Cordelia shedding a tear when Lear  finally recognises her in his madness is extremely affecting. Dunne makes  Regan’s villainy a progressive revelation, while Drew gives some richness to the  oft one-note psychotic Cornwall, and Ronan Leahy stands out from the ensemble  with empathetic nuance as he counsels Gloucester and Cordelia. Kellegher’s  Goneril though lacks subtlety, and Mcmenamin’s Edmund, emphasising his  discordant Northern accent and swanking around in black, at times appears to be  in an entirely different play. Cranitch’s straightforward Gloucester meanwhile  failed to match Keith Thompson’s 2010 camp lecherous interpretation, making his  eye-gouging less traumatic despite some truly horrific gouged eye-socket makeup.  He certainly wasn’t helped though by both beard and gouged-eye makeup peeling  off on the night I went…

This is a good production that has a  number of great performances, but some disappointing turns and an  inconsistency in tackling the text hold it back from true greatness.

3/5

King Lear continues its run at the Abbey  until the 23rd of March.

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