King Lear / Measure For Measure / Country Music /
Iphigenia At Aulis / Judith Bloom
Various venues
June, 2004

It’s an old question, but none the less perennially valid: where would we be without Shakespeare?  In terms of this issue, the answer is “over before we know it”.  As the frequency of openings begins to tail off for the summer, reviews of plays by the Bard constitute over 20% of this issue – and that’s without any of the critics reprinted herein having gone to Highgate to see the production of The Comedy Of Errors praised by Ian Herbert in …At The Back.


Two of the Shakespeares in question – those constituting Michael Bogdanov’s patchy diptych at Ludlow Castle – I’ve already written about with my Financial Times hat on. So let’s cut straight to the chase, and Corin Redgrave in King Lear.  Right at the start, I have to ’fess up to some blatant hypocrisy.  The remark on the front cover of this issue about Redgrave following in his father’s Stratford footsteps makes a decent headline; as part of a review, though, I think it likely to be irrelevant at best.  Of those critics who have mentioned the father/son Redgrave succession, I wonder how many actually saw Sir Michael Redgrave’s 1953 performance; certainly, none writes of it in any detail, and it’s a simple fact that not all of them were even alive at the time.  As one who was himself born ten years after that event, all I can say is that Corin Redgrave’s is the finest Lear I have seen.  After a mere fifteen years in the game, the sample I’m working from may be barely into double figures, but I’m none the less confident in my appraisal.

Nicholas de Jongh is spot on with his succinct characterisation of this Lear as a retired-colonel type.  True, too, he has neither the venerability we expect of an 80-year-old Lear nor the majesty we expect to see disintegrating into madness.  But that doesn’t mean that this Lear does not speak deeply to us, merely that we must listen in an unaccustomed register.  Redgrave’s Lear has a kind of officers’-mess playfulness to him; he is not domestically tyrannous so much as uncomprehen-dingly brusque.  I kept being reminded of the Duke of Edinburgh: those barked laughs and supposed jokes, and the rattled puzzlement when they misfire.  Indeed, it’s noticeable that this Lear often tries to resort to humour as a surrogate for, or prelude to, outright anger – the kind of peremptory sarcasm or derisive non-jokes with which a commander tries to soften his character, not realising that all they do is reinforce his lack of proper human understanding.  Likewise, when he descends into madness, his insanity isn’t towering and tempestuous to match the elements out there on the heath, but all too natural: a little edgy and dislocated, and on a human scale.  Redgrave does not give us a Lear in the mould of classical tragic heroes; he brings the tragic into our world.  Bill Alexander’s non-specific 20th-century production locates it close enough to home for us to  feel kinship with characters, without reducing it to a level of kitchen-sink contemporaneity.


Like Stephen Unwin’s English Touring Theatre production a couple of years ago (with Timothy West in the title role), Alexander’s is a clear reading: no earth-shattering revelations, but no patches of opacity either.  Without a high concept to bind an ensemble approach, individual performances stand out for positive or negative reasons.  John Normington’s Fool plainly derives his licence to speak plainly from having spent an age in Lear’s service; the two have an old-friends shorthand of shared humorous references.  Pal Aron’s Edgar seems a little adrift at first, but comes into his own in the Poor Tom disguise, finding an intricate path through the faux-mad utterances and heartfelt asides.  And Louis Hilyer’s Kent is a magnificent combination of bluffness and sensitivity; what with this role and his Banquo in Macbeth, Hilyer is having an excellent season, which one hopes will result in his name becoming as widely known as it ought to be.

In contrast, Matthew Rhys never quite attains the Machiavellian darkness necessary in the role of Edmund, and I’m at a loss to understand how Nicholas de Jongh can so praise Anatol Yusef’s Cornwall for plonking leadenly through the metre of the verse and end-stopping his lines with a dogmatic fervour that even Peter Hall might balk at.  But this might be a function of my own advancing middle-aged dogmatism: see below.  Nevertheless, as regards the wonderful central performance, if I see no finer Lear than Corin Redgrave’s in the (hopefully many) years that remain to me, I shall feel no regret on that score.


Robert Hewison’s review of the Globe Measure For Measure ends with what may seem a cavil; however, seated close to him as I was, I can confirm that the blocking played a large part in ruining the production for us and those around us.  Director John Dove evidently believed he had found one of the “hot spots” on the theatre’s stage, and kept moving his players to it at crucial moments.  But, given the Globe’s faithful architecture, it meant that he overlooked the brute necessities of playing to a vista of more than 180 degrees, and significant clumps of us regularly found these moments of greatest tension frustratingly invisible behind one of the broad pillars that support the stage canopy.  (I recall several Edinburgh Fringes ago watching a production which, staged as it was with rows of actors facing full front, yet playing to an audience on three sides, afforded me and many others  no more than a profile of one actor at a time.  I was so irked that afterwards I buttonholed the director and asked whether she’d realised that this was the effect of her blocking; she said yes, and despite it all this was the way she’d decided to stage it.  I realised with rare insight that if I were to try to make her appreciate the contempt this showed for her audience in valuing her concept above basic visibility, I’d shortly have been redecorating the venue in arterial red, so I left it at that.)

The main ingredient of Dove’s directorial interpretation is summed up by Jonathan Gibbs in his Time Out review: away with much of the modern chin-stroking about Measure For Measure being a “problem play”, and back to its old essence as a comedy, even if not the most consistently rib-tickling.  Mark Rylance’s Duke Vincentio becomes less a morally ambivalent puppet-master and more a slightly nobler, cerebral version of Norman Wisdom, tripping up (figuratively speaking) time and again before the clumsy but allegedly heart-warming resolution.  It fits in with the Globe’s policy of giving a taste of period authenticity, but it can be very difficult to leave behind the critical baggage the play has amassed.  Difficult, and not necessarily desirable.  Who’s to say the audience is wrong (and Dove wrong to give them the opportunity) to laugh at Angelo’s outright sexual assault of Isabella?  Well, we are, as reviewers with a broader perspective: we’re not entirely caught up in the moment and swept along by the blithe escapism of the staging.  However it may have been received when written, for us today the play isn’t a bawdy romp, but a tangle of sexual repression and hypocrisy.  A production that, for whatever reason, ends up obscuring this dimension from a modern audience is one that’s being wilfully perverse.


This “Who’s to say…? Me, actually” phenomenon is one of the problems of criticism: having not just the confidence to give one’s opinion, but the confidence that it is validly grounded, yet without handing down Olympian pronouncements as routine.  (Another memory: a symposium on reviewing, several years ago, in which a precocious student writer of my acquaintance was in the end swatted down by the chairwoman with the incontestable point that she had the experience to know what she was talking about and he didn’t; a little later, he turned to me and asked, with an uneasy incredulity, “You don’t suppose she’s right, do you?”  Naming no names, except that of Independent columnist and reviewer Johann Hari…)  It’s one of those things that age tends to bring; although whether that’s a form of wisdom or a hardening of the mental arteries is open to question.  After years of pride in my liberalism, I now find myself less and less able to put myself in the place of the illiberal, which is of course itself a form of illiberality.

In my own case, a recent instance of this is my inability to comprehend how people can miss the elliptical heart of Simon Stephens’ Country Music.  I gasped to read Nicholas de Jongh’s review (three mentions in one Prompt Corner: not a campaign, honest, just the way the cards fell), as it seemed to me to espouse a political view largely indistinguishable from the general editorial line of the Evening Standard, which for Nicholas is extraordinary.  The damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t accusation that Stephens is at once “vague” and “obvious” seems to me quite at odds with his actual style of playwriting.  Points aren’t vague for being not explicitly spelt out.  Far from being a bleeding-heart social-worker cop-out, Stephens’ portrait of a life ruined by violence and crime is scrupulous in not apportioning blame.  We’re given glimpses of possible reasons as to why Jamie might have set out on the path he did, without in any way excusing his behaviour.  His attempts to edge back into the world he left behind are painful not simply because they’re doomed to failure, but because in his secret heart he knows it and realises that this is the result of his own conduct.

There are several oblique sidelights that have little direct bearing on the drama, but increase the poignancy at its margins: for instance, it’s possible to infer from a number of isolated passing references that Jamie only taught himself to read and write when in prison, and that his belated appreciation of the value of learning is what lies behind both his discreet horror when his brother speaks of dropping out of college and, later, his pride in his daughter’s menial clerical job.  There’s a great deal unspoken in this play, but nothing missing; and, sentimental though the words may sometimes be when they do come out, they’re all the more honest simply for being at last articulated.


Match the adjective to the director: I bet you’d never think of putting “whimsical” next to the name of Katie Mitchell.  But so much of her Iphigenia At Aulis at the Lyttelton seems to be composed of odd quirks.  She even begins by taking the mickey out of her oft-remarked preference for dim stage lighting: Agamemnon enters, gropes across the darkened stage, trips over some furniture and whispers, “Shit!”  Possibly the disjunction arises from trying to reconcile modernity with the 2400-year-old rituals which underpinned the original presentation of Greek theatre.  So it’s fine and dandy to portray Achilles, for instance, as puffed-up and self-regarding, and to set the action in a half-derelict requisitioned mansion; but try also to maintain the formal elements of choric singing and dancing, and you may end up with the strange kind of backwards ballroom shuffle executed here, which looks more like a parody of Beckett than anything else.  It makes the world of the play at once recognisable and yet incomprehensible.  Until, that is, the final half-hour, when Hattie Morahan’s Iphigenia stops being a cipher and discovers a fatalistic passion in embracing her grim destiny.  Mitchell crafts a shocking, potent end to what had too often been an evening of puzzling business and uncertain tone.

Glib Encapsulations ‘R’ Us: Peter Elkins’ Judith Bloom is a more youthful, 21st-century equivalent of the “adultery in NW3” play.  Without the adultery.  Or the NW3.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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