A new season has arrived at the Globe, yet it only seems like a few days ago that I was bemoaning the onset of autumn and the end of last year's season! Thankfully, we've sped through the dark days of the year and here is the first play in the Globe's 2008 season which offers four of Shakespeare's plays and two completely new ones.
King Lear is a good choice to start things off. It's still a popular play with a bit of goriness thrown in for good measure, and it's also entertaining even if it is rather bleak and dispiriting at the same time. At the directorial helm is the Globe's artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole.
The play presents an interesting question almost at the very start and one that I had previously overlooked. Is King Lear already mad when he decides to hang up his crown and settle for a bit of merrymaking with 100 or so of his pals in retirement? The reason I ask this question is that it doesn't seem quite the sensible thing to do to split your kingdom into three - even if you think you're being nice to your daughters who are going to inherit. It also doesn't seem a valid argument that splitting-up your kingdom will have the effect of avoiding quarrels. Even Lear's fool seems to regard this decision as a little bonkers. In fact, the last time I saw Lear Corin Regrave was in the lead and seemed a little 'unhinged' right at the start of the play. Although I didn't see it at the time, I now appreciate what Redgrave might have had in mind.
Here, David Calder's Lear doesn't seem at all unhinged at the start of this version of the play. He's pretty much in control even though he flies into a rage when his youngest daughter won't do what is expected of her, ie tell her daddy that she loves him to bits. That seals her fate and her father's as well, because it's not long before the arrangements Lear thought he'd made for his retirement are thrown to the wind by his other daughters, and he ends up a mad vagrant.
King Lear is a long play, but here it's given a pacey treatment that had my colleague wondering if it wasn't a bit rushed. It didn't seem too fast for my liking. If anything, I thought the first half a bit long, and the whole thing is still over 3 hours (including the interval) which is quite a duration to stand in the yard.
In such a large auditorium, it's not always easy to hear what the actors are saying, as I think I've noted in previous reviews. But in Lear the clarity of the delivery from all the cast was excellent, and every word came across with crystal clarity in spite of the airline companies' best efforts to disrupt things on their way in to Heathrow.
David Calder has a rich, mellow voice and has the considerable stage presence to make his Lear authoritative at least before his descent into madness. He's well-supported by a nimble Paul Copley as the loyal and down-to-earth Kent, and Danny Lee Wynter is an exuberantly camp and youthful fool who still manages to see things more clearly than his employer. I also enjoyed Trystan Gravelle as Edgar, and Daniel Hawksford as Gloucester's bastard son, Edmund. The good versus evil pairing worked effectively even if Gravelle's armour in the final act made him seem a little like Robocop.
A special feature of productions at the Globe, is the excellent music. In King Lear, it's as good as ever and has the added benefit of some hauntingly melancholic singing by Pamela Hay. The musical history books seem to have been scoured once again to find even more unusual instruments. And the play is wrapped-up with the now traditional and highly enjoyable dancing at the end.
This version of Lear is hard to fault, though it's also hard to find in it something that is particularly novel or unique. It's polished and highly professional as we've now come to expect from this venue since Dominic Dromgoole took charge. But I wonder if, having now had 2 seasons as artistic director, it isn't time for him to take more risks? Though the theatre itself and the nature of the Globe audiences impose some restrictions, I don't think that should limit creativity or stop him from being adventurous. That said, Dromgoole's well-rounded format for his Shakespearian plays does seem to appeal to the audiences, and not surprisingly because they are immensely enjoyable. The only danger I foresee is that the format may get tired. But, to be fair, we're only at the beginning of this season. Who knows what's in store?
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "I soon found myself as overwhelmed by David Calder’s King Lear as any interpretation I have seen in 25 years." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Fluent, fast-paced and admirably direct." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Dromgoole's production is good." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Outstanding production." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Production is fast and fluent."
Production photo by John Haynes