King Lear

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Chichester Festival Theatre & Duke of York’s Theatre / directed by Jonathan Munby

Seen on September 26, 2018

Thumbs-up: An imperfect but thoroughly satisfying rendering of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, positively charmed and charged by Ian McKellen’s peculiar portrayal of Lear. McKellen’s Lear is staggeringly unstable, loose, and lost from the very beginning (in contrast to the gradually deteriorating Anthony Sher in the recent RSC production), and both his physicality and his speech are noticeably contorted by his waste land of a mind. Particularly until the storm scene, this depiction flirts with, and enjoys, the risk of unintelligibility, yet for those who know the work somewhat well, his defamiliarization of some of the most iconic lines in the play is a welcome surprise. And once he meets Luke Thompson’s Edgar on the heath, McKellen unlocks a new depth in the madness and decay of Lear, bringing it to a shattering crescendo by the end of the play.

In the production’s generally strong cast, the most fascinating performances belong to Danny Web (Gloucester), Sinéad Cusack (an impressively nuanced Kent), Kirsty Bushell (a delectably twisted and insatiable, even sadistic, Regan), and James Corrigan (a bad-boy Edmund). Paul Wills’ intelligent and evocative scenic design, including a well-exploited runway, and Oliver Fenwick’s sublime lighting greatly enrich the production’s modern-day aesthetic.

Thumbs-down: For most of this otherwise blazing production, the entire cast seems to be haunted by a curse of jarring, uneasy inflection. There is something about their patterns of speech that pushes the audience away, instead of welcoming and luring them into the immensely rich poetry of this play. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, nearly indistinguishable from the soundtrack of an action B-movie, is much too forceful and adrenaline-ridden to be in sync with this production. Finally, I would expect much more from Anita-Joy Uwajeh (as Cordelia) and Luke Thompson (as Edgar). And, of course, it would have been better if the play’s last moment, with Edgar’s haunting closing words, did not fall flat!

Score: 4.5/5

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The Prisoner

The Prisoner by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne

National Theatre / co-directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne

Seen on September 24, 2018

Thumbs-up: A mystifying tale about a man forced to sit in front of a prison, alone and for years, as punishment for his patricide. Dealing with questions of repentance, forgiveness, and love, both the text and the performances set great store by qualities of understatement and sparseness. David Violi’s minimalist set design and Philippe Vialatte’s subtle but clear lighting are perhaps the greatest embodiments (and achievements) of this intended effect. At its best, Brook and Estienne’s directing is pregnant with exciting ambiguity, though it often dips its toes into a territory that is awkwardly unintelligible. Hiran Abeysekera is the only cast member whose performance makes full sense and propels the show forward.

Thumbs-down: To put it simply, this was a hugely underwhelming experience, particularly in light of all that one might (reasonably) expect from the legendary Peter Brook. Nothing about this production makes the medium of theatre a necessary part of our experience of what is otherwise a compelling story: not much, if anything, would have changed if we were offered the same tale in the form of a short story. Further, the script itself is certainly not in its most ideal or mature form, as many of the lines suffer from flat-out bad writing. Compounded with problems in dramaturgy, the play’s language also puts the actors in a tight corner, closing off many venues for the development of their performances, which are already tonally inconsistent and puzzlingly mechanical (no, that is not realism). Finally, one cannot help but notice that for all its alleged interest in the theme of justice, the play is actually more preoccupied with incestuous love, and it’s unfortunate that even that thematic strain does not reach a satisfying fruition, much less a riveting resolution.

Notes: It is not difficult to understand, soon after the performance starts, what Brook and Estienne’s thematic and formal aspirations are: telling a simple but profound story simply but profoundly. Yet even before it’s all over, one is forced to conclude that they fail at this, as their vision of simplicity veers into a vacuity of spirit, and their tacit promise of profundity turns out to have been stillborn. The empty space remains mostly, and sadly, empty.

Score: 3/5