Monday, 28 April 2008

Review Of King Lear At The Globe Theatre

As I approached the Globe Theatre for the second night of King Lear, the atmosphere around the theatre was positively buzzing.

There was a slight confusion when, bursting for the loo, I politely asked a steward where the “cloakroom” was. He told me there wasn’t one at the theatre which seemed utterly mad so I asked if I could use the one in the exhibition centre (I’d used those earlier in the week and they were rather plush!). He looked confused and asked his colleague if there was somewhere to leave coats. It was then that I realised my polite turn of phrase had just confused everybody! I re-phrased and asked if he could direct me to the toilets!

People stood outside the theatre, chatting, drinking and eating. Dotted around were various stalls selling drinks, sausage baps, cookies and nuts. There was also a stall renting cushions and back rests (I had brought my own cushion after being tipped off about the hard benches!). About 10 minutes before “curtain up” a drum began beating and people made their way into the theatre. Inside the atmosphere was nothing short of electric. Strolling minstrels wandered through the audience, playing Elizabethan instruments and percussion and were soon joined by actors with bell sticks who mingled and spoke to the audience. The musicians made their way up on stage and continued to play while the auditorium filled up. A speech was made in character requesting the audience not take photographs or disturb the actors with “anachronistic ringtones” (I took my photos before this announcement!)

The last time I saw this play was Kenneth Branagh’s 1990 production with Richard Briars in the lead role and Emma Thompson as the Fool. This new production would have a lot to live up to! King Lear is not the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays to follow if you are not familiar with the text. Fortunately for me, I studied this particular tragedy many many years ago and it all came flooding back when the actors appeared on stage. The opening scene was taken at such a fast pace that I would think some of the audience struggled to keep track. However, the lead characters were suitably established and it ran smoothly from there on in. The two older sisters, Goneril and Regan, were played by actresses Sally Bretton and Kellie Bright. Both are rather young but infinitely capable and believable as the cruel, bloodthirsty sisters. King Lear, played by David Calder was a proud, stubborn man who reaches total despair and deserves every inch of our sympathy towards the end.

The late Elizabethan costumes and a subtly adaptable set were appropriately dowdy in autumnal colours with splashes of red. Without getting too deep, this reflected the action well. The scene changes were seamless, often linked by snatches of live music, and most often I failed to notice the manoeuvre from one scene to the next.

By the very nature of a roofless theatre in central London, action is sometimes disturbed by an overhead aeroplane or helicopter but the cast were unfazed and, much to their credit, not a single line of dialogue was lost.

During the interval large glasses of Pimms were for sale as well as hot drinks and Elizabethan-style snacks. I wandered around looking at the names engraved on the paving stones, all generous contributors to the building of the Globe Theatre. In pride of place was the man whose vision enabled the Globe to be reconstructed, Sam Wanamaker. There was much chatter among the audience and most seemed positive (except one man who I overheard telling his companion that he had to go home for fear of snoring loudly during a poignant moment!). Once again the drums lead us back into the theatre and, in the second half, I witnessed some of the best choreography and acting I’ve seen in a long time.

The highlight of the whole play was, for me, the storm scene. Dirt covered, near naked actors appeared from nowhere, weaving through the yard, causing the audience to move and sway; the musicians provided incredible percussive sound effects and the audience, so wrapped up in this scene of chaos and tempest, began to put their coats and hats on to ward off the elements!

There was some superb acting, not least from David Calder as Lear and his Fool, played by Danny Lee Wynter, was a joy to behold. My one criticism of this production is that, in a play which is foremost a tragedy, the comic moments were perhaps hammed up too much. Some members of the audience laughed a little too hard for my liking and I can only concur that they were drawn away from the true depths of despair experienced by Lear and some of the other characters by the overplayed gags. There were moments of disturbing and realistic violence and bloodshed which, again, some laughed at. It is possible that this was nervous giggling borne from the discomfort of seeing such graphic brutality in close quarters. However, in the program is an article about the comic content of Lear so I am assuming the delivery was intentional even though it didn’t sit quite right with me.

I must mention Trystan Gravelle who played Edgar/Poor Tom. This actor shone brightly in a cast of quality and experience. His performance was physically exciting and full of vocal strength. With perfectly understated comic delivery and touches of emotive brilliance, this is surely a name to watch out for.

In keeping with Shakespearian tradition, each character (dead or alive) rose to his feet and joined in a company song and dance at the end. This is, without doubt, everso slightly strange but equally uplifting! I am pleased to say though that the singing (in Olde English) and dancing abilities of the cast were as impressive as the acting and in no way detracted from the fabulous production.

I sneakily took one or two photos during the curtain call and as people began to leave. The full selection can be seen on flickr along with my other photos of the Globe Theatre.

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