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A CurtainUp London London Review
King Lear

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools:
— Lear
King Lear
David Calder as King Lear
(Photo: John Haynes)
If you can sit on the hard seats at the Globe for over three hours and not feel numb you know that you have been watching a really good play. So it is with Dominic Dromgoole’s straightforward and non-gimmicky reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear. I was however slightly jealous of my daughter’s having seen the play earlier in the week when real rain and thunder and lightning and hail illuminated the famous storm scene but unfortunately on that occasion the weather also hampered the actors playing out of doors, tried to drown their voices and soaked the brave but wet souls who comprise the groundlings and who stand in the uncovered Pit to watch the plays.

Dromgoole has called up some sinister plaster pink, bloody, muddy creatures who look as if they have stepped out of one of the Tate’s Francis Bacon butchery paintings to convey the weirdness of the storm landscape, but the open air Globe cannot turn the water on and off the way they can in a modern theatre. Instead our imagination has to work harder but isn’t that what great theatre is all about?

I need to say that of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, King Lear is the one I like least. Is it to do with the unremitting, two dimensional viciousness of the two main female characters, "the unnatural hags" or the inherent nasty nature of Edmund the bastard son of the Duke of Gloucester or just the dreadful gore of Gloucester having his eyes put out onstage? On this last point, well done Dromgoole at not raising a titter from the all too easily frivolous Globe crowd at the blinding of Gloucester, despite Regan mounting Gloucester to suck out his left eye! That is great direction! There is also a new addition to the Globe stage in the form of a walkway with a small hexagonal playing area attached over the Pit for variety of action. Oh and yes, while we talk about additions, the painted murals in the Gentlemen’s Boxes on the Middle Gallery of Ovid/Shakespearean themes are splendid.

So King Lear is that play that advocates against you trying to avoid death duties by gifting away early their inheritance to your children and warns old men how foolish they may be and how they can succumb to flattery. It also reminds us that royalty and intelligence do not necessarily go together, nor do daughters and kindness. As Goneril says, "Old fools are babes again". David Calder’s Lear is very normal. They are no excuses made for the two elder daughters’ behaviour by making him a very inconsiderate and annoying house guest. Instead he is a really likeable old man with poor judgment. He is wrong about Cordelia, wrong about Goneril and Regan, and wrong about the loyal Duke of Kent (Paul Copley). As Lear speaks the speech "Oh let me not be mad" like a mumbling refrain we feel he is aware of and worried about succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Lear, although he is later mad, undoubtedly has some sane moments. After Gloucester’s blinding, like Greek tragedy there are all those allusions to sight and seeing and eyes and, as Lear recognises Gloucester (Joseph Mydell), I felt the emotion of the moment. These two old men both dreadfully hurt by their children find each other. Trystan Gravelle as Edgar excels in the Globe’s space given the curious role of the rightful heir who disguises himself as Poor Tom in order to look after his father and not alert his half-brother Edmund (Daniel Hawksford). Edgar climbs a precarious pole above the stage to tell the audience of his proposed feigned madness. I also liked Danny Lee Wynter’s white faced Fool who has some of the sanest comments in the play. When Lear asks him if he called him fool, the Fool says "All thy other titles thou hast given away". In the stag hunt which is great fun with musical instruments and audience interaction, the Fool plays the part of the pursued stag.

The costumes are a cross between Tudor and Chekhovian, with fur trimmed capes and fur hats and boots but Lear is set in Britain in the days before global warming and central heating. The battle is fought as a stylised slow dance, step forward, stab, stamp. Argghh! Mime releasing an arrow from a long bow and another Arghh! I liked its style and imagination. After the death of Lear and Cordelia and those killed in battle, the finale sees them gently wakened one by one to rise into a final stately dance for the applause of the crowd.

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole

Starring: David Calder, Trystan Gravelle, Joseph Mydell
With: Sally Bretton, Fraser James, Kellie Bright, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Jodie McNee, Daniel Lee Wynter, Kevork Malikyan, Paul Copley, Daniel Hawksford, Paul Lloyd, Kurt Egyiawan, Ashley Rolfe, Beru Tessema, Ben Bishop, Pamela Hay, Michael Jarvis, Ben Lee, Richard Marshall, Fabian Spencer
Design: Jonathan Fensom
Composer: Claire van Kempen
Choreographer: Siân Williams
Fight Director: Renny Krupinski
Text: Giles Block
Movement: Glynn MacDonald
Running time: Three hours 10 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7401 9919
Booking to 17th August 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 2nd May 2008 performance at The Globe, New Globe Walk, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: London Bridge or Mansion House/St Pauls and across the Millennium Bridge)
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