King Lear 2010

BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
DIRECTED BY MARION POTTS
FEATURING JOHN BELL

A father in his twilight years divides his assets between his three daughters. She who loves him most will gain the most. Goneril and Regan are more than happy to flatter him so they share the spoils. Cordelia, his youngest and favourite, is too honest for her own good. Furious, he disowns her and sends her away. Betrayed by the elder two who have all he once owned, Lear is left destitute. Still blinded by pride and vanity, it’s not until Cordelia returns to save him that he realises his catastrophic mistake and recognises true love. But is it too late?

One of the greatest works in Western literature, King Lear is an epic story of power, loyalty, jealousy and betrayal, and a profoundly moving study of human frailty and the nature of love.

Celebrate the 20th year of Bell Shakespeare as John Bell leads some of Australia’s most respected actors and exciting new talent in Marion Potts’ richly poetic production.

Please note: This production contains some strobe effects and haze.

Lear, King of Britain, decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom between his three daughters. When his beloved youngest, Cordelia, refuses to make a public declaration of love for her father she is disinherited and married to the King of France without a dowry. The Earl of Kent is banished by Lear for daring to defend her. The two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, and their husbands inherit the kingdom. Gloucester, deceived by his bastard son Edmund, disinherits his legitimate son, Edgar, who is forced to go on the run to save his life.

Lear, now stripped of his power, quarrels with Goneril and Regan about the conditions of his lodging in their households. In a rage he goes out into the stormy night, accompanied by his Fool and by Kent, now disguised as a servant. They encounter Edgar, disguised as a mad beggar called Poor Tom. Gloucester is betrayed by Edmund and captured by Regan and Cornwall, who put out his eyes. King Lear is taken secretly to Dover, where Cordelia has landed with a French army. The blind Gloucester meets but does not recognize Edgar, who leads him to Dover.

Lear and Cordelia are reconciled, but in the ensuing battle are captured by the Sisters‘ forces. Goneril and Regan are both in love with Edmund, who encourages them both. Discovering this, Goneril’s husband Albany forces Edmund to defend himself against the charge of treachery. A knight appears to challenge Edmund and, after fatally wounding him, reveals himself to be Edgar. News comes that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then committed suicide. Before dying, Edmund reveals that he has ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia.

Extract from The RSC Shakespeare: The Complete Works Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen Macmillan Publishers, 2007

Director Marion Potts
Designer Dale Ferguson
Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper
Sound Designer Stefan Gregory
Composer Bree van Reyk
Fight Director Nigel Poulton
Vocal Coach Peter Carroll
Assistant Director Jessica Tuckwell
Assistant Lighting Designer Chris Twyman

With
Keith Agius
John Bell           
Peter Carroll
Justin Cotta
Paul English
Rachel Gordon
Peter Kowitz
Josh McConville
Jane Montgomery Griffiths
Bruce Myles
Yalin Ozucelik
Anthony Phelan
Susan Prior
Bree van Reyk
Tim Walter

I have had the great privilege of playing King Lear twice in
my career and, as I write this, am limbering up (literally) for a
third attempt.

My first effort was in the Nimrod production of 1984
directed by Aubrey Mellor with a strong cast: Judy Davis
doubled as the Fool and Cordelia, Colin Friels played
Edmund, and Robert Menzies, Edgar. John Ewing was
Gloucester, John Howard, Kent and Michael Gow, Oswald.
Goneril and Regan were played by Gillian Jones and Kris
McQuade. After a try-out schools’ season in the unlikely
setting of the Bankstown Sports Club, we played the York
Theatre in the Seymour Centre. The set consisted of a
huge pile of rubble, as of some bombed European city at
the end of the World War II, and the costumes were the
rag-tag remnants of guerrilla fighters. This certainly gave
the second half of the play a suitably blighted landscape
but was not helpful for the beginning when Lear is carving
up his kingdom and doling out “shadowy forests and with
champains riched, With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted
meads”.

Barrie Kosky’s 1998 production for Bell Shakespeare was
more successful in this regard. The curtain rose on a scene
of fairytale splendour with Lear on his throne in front of a
gold curtain, his court garbed in a dazzling array of colourful
furs and jewels.

Kosky’s production was a far cry from the determined
realism of Aubrey Mellor’s. From start to finish it was
intensely theatrical. Kosky sat on stage throughout
pounding an ancient upright piano. Beside him stood two
ageing trumpeters who were more at home on the club
circuit. All three were dressed in black tie, dinner jackets
and red fez hats. Instead of his accompanying knights,
Lear had four “dogs” on leashes. These were four young
men stripped to the waist, sporting plastic shower caps
and white clown makeup. They wore baggy pants from
which protruded outsized genitalia. Louise Fox’s Fool was
a Shirley Temple look-alike who led the tap dancing dogs
in a rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. These were
some of the least controversial aspects of the production.
The hovel was a big gold box with holes in it. We mad
folk crammed inside it, stuck our arms and legs out of the
holes and jabbered insanely. Probably the most memorable
scene was that set in Dover which reminded me of one
of those ghastly bus terminals with rows of plastic chairs
and flickering neon lights. People wandered about wearing
huge grotesque puppet masks while I chatted away to
Gloucester, dressed in Cordelia’s discarded pink fur coat,
while handing out rubber dildos to passers-by… Barrie
never did explain why the rubber dildos.

It was a bit of a wild ride, that Lear. A lot of people walked
out, we got bags of hate-mail and sometimes the audience
would yell things like “Rubbish!” during the curtain-call…
but people still talk about it. I found the production freed me
up a lot, removing the constraints of naturalism, of trying to
reconcile heightened verse with everyday behavior as well
as act both old age and insanity. There was certainly no
need to act the insanity – the production did that for me;
the imagery of the hovel and Dover scenes suggested the
inside of Lear’s head.

My next attempt at the role will perforce be very different
– another director, another vision. I look forward to
coming back to the psychology of the role, the interplay of
characters and Shakespeare’s dissection of monarchy, of
patriarchy and of family.

I am interested in the relationship between Lear and his
daughters that has made them the way they are. He makes
no secret of the fact that he loves and prefers Cordelia and
wants to give her the biggest slice of his kingdom. Enough
to embitter her siblings, I should think. Even so, they begin
quite reasonably in their treatment of their father until his
demands and his behavior get too much for them. What a
lousy deal: “I’m going to give each of you half my kingdom
to administer but I’ll hang on to the title and all the perks of
king and have a happy old retirement. I’ll come and stay with
you in turn, month and month about, and I’ll be bringing with
me a hundred knights, my hunting buddies, to be housed at
your expense.” Bad enough, especially when the hundred
knights turn out to be a drunken rabble and that bloody Fool
never stops insulting you with his wisecracks. Embittered by
their father’s capriciousness, and driven increasingly apart
by their fear and ambition, the two sisters find themselves
stuck in a quagmire of resentment no family counselor
could resolve. And what of Cordelia? Is she Lear’s favourite
because she is so docile? I suspect rather the reverse –
she’s a chip off the old block, as stubborn as he is. Her
refusal to play in the flattering love contest is a show of
willful independence, a public humiliation of her father.

Lear’s folly is evident from the very start: the idea of
breaking up a prosperous and successful business just so
that one can enjoy a comfortable retirement is as indolent
as it is short-sighted. Surely Lear should see that all he is
doing is brewing rivalry and conflict. Worse, the game is
rigged. He knows in advance he is going to give “a third
more opulent” to Cordelia. What kind of equal third is that?
He means he is going to give her the choice bit and spend
his whole retirement with her. Worse still, he is not just
selling off the farm – he’s giving it away. He intends to marry
off Cordelia to either the Duke of Burgundy or the King of
France, and one of them will inherit the choicest slice of
Britain. No wonder Kent labels it “hideous rashness.”
Once I crack that opening scene the rest is pretty plain
sailing. But that first scene is tricky. Some commentators
suggest Lear is mad at the beginning and the rest of the
play is about him coming to his senses. I don’t think so.
That first scene isn’t about madness – it’s about the pitfalls
of power. It’s what happens when a man has got used to
having absolute power and is convinced he has a divine
right to it. It’s important that Lear is old. He’s been in the
job too long. He’s bored and wants out of responsibility.
Because he demands and basks in flattery he is out of
touch with the business and with the people around him,
and most of all with his subjects – the homeless, poor and
hungry whom he has never encountered. His grand plan
has been tossed off without a thought of its ramifications
and consequences. He is indeed “King” Lear and the rest
of the play is about learning what it is to lose that title, that
authority, and to realise that he is only a “poor, bare, forked
animal” like other men.

In that opening scene we see Lear at his worst: vain,
shallow, stupid, short-sighted, bullying and childish. Yet
we’re told that people love him! Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester
and the Fool are all ready to lay down their lives for him.
I can’t recall seeing a Lear who deserved that sort of
devotion. One has to invest some sort of back-story to
say that he has had a long and successful reign and the
kingdom is in great shape. He has earned the love of at
least some of his subjects, those named above. They remain
loyal and loving, despite the fact that he is hardening into a
cranky old tyrant.

After that things get easier. Lear is certainly ugly in his
confrontations with Goneril and Regan, but by now we
start to feel some compassion for him given their rough
treatment of him. Some humanity starts to bleed through the
carapace of his folly. His pain finds relief in the violence of
the storm – he exults in it and starts to come to his senses.
He suddenly realises that the hungry and homeless are
constantly exposed to these forces of nature: “O, I have
taken too little care of this.” The sight of Poor Tom tips his
senses into a new kind of consciousness which I would
hesitate to call madness because it is so piercingly clearsighted.
Lear now realizes his common humanity. He sees
through the privileges of wealth and power that stand in the
way of justice. One is awed by Lear’s devastating critique of
human institutions and hierarchy. His humility and patience
when he is awakened from his torment cannot fail to attract
a sympathy that turns to admiration when he defies his
captors and accompanies Cordelia to prison.

Not that the play is about “feeling sorry” for King Lear. The
last thing you could accuse the play of is sentimentality…
We should not feel a cheap thrill of satisfaction at the
downfall of Goneril, Regan and Edmund. Rather we are
asked to reflect on the tearing apart of family, of community,
of country due to arrogance, moral blindness, emotional
deadness and the abuse of authority. Lear’s “madness” is
liberating. He has always denied the female (flexible and
forgiving) part of himself. He refuses to weep, suppressing
and imploding his natural instincts. This repression turns
into a vehement disgust of all things feminine. He has
renounced his warmth and a unifying principle of human
existence, and he gives away his kingdom not because he
loves his daughters but because he wants to own them. He
mistakes this impulse for paternal affection, but he has to
undergo a painful journey to learn what real love is.

John Bell AO