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King Lear

The Guardian, 1st December 1976, Michael Billington

King Lear, said J.C. Maxwell, is a Christian play about a pagan world. It shows man reduced to his essentials and discovering for himself the need for patience, love and charity. But by setting the action in a military, middle-European, pre-1914 society on the verge of disintegration, the directors of the new Stratford production anchor the text in specifics while losing something of its religious resonance. This is less King Lear that Archduke Lear.

At first, the concrete sense of period works beautifully. Donald Sinden’s Lear is no mythic monarch but a tetchy Austro-Hungarian autocrat in epaulettes and glittering medals who is used to having his orders instantly obeyed; and the asperity with which he inflects the last word in ‘Regan, wife of Cornwall’ conveys a whole history of domestic turmoil. Nunn also follows Brook’s example in showing Lear to be frequently insufferable: when he enters Goneril’s domain in a covered wagon with his knights firing muskets at passing pheasants, you realise he perhaps wasn’t the ideal house guest. And, as in the Miller version, it makes for extraordinary pathos to have the fool played as a superannuated jester who even coughs in asthmatic harmony with his master.

But although the production bristles with intelligence, it rarely moves one. It shows a sophisticated European society breaking apart and lapsing into the brutal chaos of trench warfare and large-scale slaughter. But this undercuts the quintessential Englishness of the text (with its references to Dover, Lipsbury Pinfold, stocks, worsted, and so forth). And, more importantly, it destroys the notion of instinctive moral qualities coming to the surface in a pre-Christian society. I don’t yearn for Stonehengery or people sitting about uncomfortably on Druidic pillars: at the same time the play leans heavily on the idea of man hacking out his own moral pathway without depending on revealed religion.

I feel similarly equivocal about Sinden’s Lear. It is full of brilliant insights like the way he charges into Regan’s house like a wild boar the second a door is opened; or the transformation of ‘O, Fool, I shall go mad’ into a statement rather than a prophecy. He also conveys madness’s strange blend of muddle and clarity, chilling the heart with his sudden recognition of Gloucester in the Dover scene. The externals of old age and insanity are faultlessly captured. What I miss is the authentic cry of a cornered human soul: Sinden acts torment without, for me, instinctively embodying it.

The level of acting is, however, exceptionally high. Michael William’s bald-pated Fool, literally, bringing the highly realistic storm to a halt so that play stops rain, is the best since McCowen’s; Tony Church’s Gloucester is the very echo of Lear in his choleric babble on discovering Edgar’s apparent treachery; Michael Pennington’s Edgar never lets the Poor Tommery get out of hand and memorably makes his voice quaver as he recognises his father on the heath; and Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Judi Dench make Goneril and Regan not the usual Ugly Sisters but the strong-willed daughters of a strong-willed father.

Everything bespeaks care, intelligence and devotion. But at the end I came out feeling I had seen a carefully planned assault on an unconquerable play, rather than the reduction of man to ‘ a poor, bare forked animal’ and his exhilarating re-creation.

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