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January 18, 2005

King Lear - RSC at the Albery

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

King Lear
RSC at the Albery Theatre, London
13th January - 5th February 2005

What is King Lear about? There are few things more dire in discussing dramatic narratives than that appalling preposition. The point about a story is that it is just there, and whatever critical pirouettes we may subsequently choose to dance around it, no story can be reduced to a thesis without remainder, and often the remainder is much more significant than the thesis. Relevance is supposed to bring a work of art to life, at least for a rather dim audience that doesn't want to be there in the first place. What it actually does is destroy the spirit of the thing by drowning it in the tedium of current controversy.

These reflections are provoked hardly at all by the RSC's production of Lear, but rather by the programme notes that go with it, and we'll get to them presently. Meanwhile, the production is pretty good. The speaking is marvellously lucid: none of that tearing a passion to tatters so that you cannot hear the words. The characters are all suitably good and bad, and I particularly like the silky villainy of Goneril and Regan. Edmund's worth a good hissing, too. Cordelia would move a heart of stone, and Gloucester's loss of eyes is not for the squeamish.

The centre of the play, of course, is the King, and Corin Redgrave introduces him as irascible and jokey. It's a plausible way of doing it, especially at the beginning, and Redgrave does it very well, but the cost is the frailty and majesty of the king. The text gives him white hair, but Redgrave is, in hirsute terms, very well preserved. The boisterous character of the king does at least generate some sympathy for Goneril: he would indeed be a trial to have around. Out on the blasted heath, the thunder is used as a kind of italics to highlight the passages thought to be especially significant. The dress is vaguely modern, but Oswald seems to have drifted in from an eighteenth century comedy of manners, and Edgar and Edmund don seventeenth century military kit for their climactic duel.

You'd think Lear was pretty resistant to instant relevance, and in fact most of it is. But thespians live in an alternatives world of fantasy, and are not very good at everyday realities, and Redgrave was to be spotted on television this week muttering something about politicians failing to apologise for embracing bad policies. The Redgraves live in their own better world, of course. The problem is that Lear offers only a few unambiguous snippets to support it. One is Lear's "Take physic, pomp" and another is Gloucester's "distribution should undo excess", but these remarks of men at the end of their tether hardly amount to Shakespeare's proto-socialism. Again, the idea that Lear has a "seditious thrust", pressed in one of the programme essays, is way off the mark. All the characters have a clear idea of social and moral order, and their distress results from the fact that they are living in a reign of disorder. Shakespeare removed most of the Christian references from the play that seems to have been his model, so that we have a pagan world in which the characters are trying to make a kind of providential sense of the awful things happening to them, without an agreed account of providence. Is there a judgement of the heavens, or are we just as flies to wanton boys, killed for sport? It is a terrible, disordered world, raising not merely existential but existentialist questions, and Edgar's last words suggest that a disordered generation has passed and order is being restored. Far from being seditious, one might imagine that it was just the "message" King James would have enjoyed on Boxing Day in 1606. It tells of the horrors of disorder. It is also a marvellous account of the self-destructive character of evils.

Lear was certainly capricious, but he was not "omnipotent" as the programme essay suggests (omnipotence is strictly for God) and hardly at all "absolute" – merely a standard issue mediaeval monarch. Divinity certainly hedged all of these figures, but Lear was not a divine right monarch as James understood it. (James himself was pretty circumspect about these beliefs, in fact. He had to deal with parliament. It was his son, trying to dispense with that tiresome body, who came to grief.)

The other fascinating exercise in the RSC's educational mission to generate a more inclusive enjoyment of Shakespeare is Victoria Coren explaining that King Lear is really Shakespeare's take on the problem of the generation gap, but with a few knobs on. Amusing as this might be as a satirical sketch about the play, it isn't quite true that:

"King Lear is effectively shouting at Cordelia, 'You treat this castle like a bloody hotel! All I ask is that you keep your wing tidy and eat the capon you're given…'"
A far more interesting view is that Cordelia's problem is that the hyperbole of her sisters has so completely exhausted the possibilities of the language that there is nothing that can be said. One of the devices Regrave uses is a kind of stuttering every time the word "nothing" come up, recalling that fatal "nothing comes of nothing" in the fatal encounter with Cordelia. Altogether this Lear is a great evening in the theatre, but all you need to read is the text itself.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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