King Lear at the Abbey Theatre

November 4, 2013


King Lear

The problem with King Lear is that it so often becomes about the challenge facing the actor playing the titular actor. We focus on it being McKellan’s Lear, Jacobi’s Lear, Russel Beale’s Lear or Pryce’s Lear rather than thinking on it as it should be. Shakespeare’s Lear and how it relates to the human condition. This is a mammoth, savage play, not about an old fool and his tyrannical daughters but rather a parable on the protective properties of love learnt through immense suffering, where the title character and his entire clan are felled by their hollow worship of power.

The Abbey Theatre’s production is, for all intents and purposes, it’s director’s Lear. Selina Cartmel’s approach has often been dismissed as mere choreography. But her immense imagination is often imbued by the make up of the characters. Through set, sound and sartorial subtlety she creates a sense of the chaos that reigns when power is pissed away,Garnace Marneur’s split level set bearing a distinct resemblance to the shell of the new and abandoned Anglo building.

Gaby Rooney’s costumes come by Middle Earth via science fiction but are infused with a modern flow which does not restrain nor alienate the actors and Conor Linehans’ almost ever present score underlines the constant threat to the characters stability. Liz Roache’s choreography fades out like an unfinished thought and the stage violence by Donal O’Farrell never rises to the immensity of the occasion. But the clarity of intent shown by some of the actors lights up the key supporting roles as if they were injected with some sort of neon dye.

Hugh O’Connor gives a beautiful performance as the Fool, haunted by the clarity of one near death. Visibly more ill every time he appears on stage, he slips the anger and sense of social outrage that all great comics posses into a performance that can be both soft and sickened at once. His function in the world is to entertain but his purpose is to educate Lear, to make him see before he looses himself totally to dementia and never has this seemed more urgent than in this production.

Caoilfhionn Dunne’s Regan ingests power like a pill, visibly coming up with each hit of authority, her troubled relationship with Lear clear as track marks on her face. While John Kavanagh’s Albany is sensational, a dour career man whose sense of duty lends credence to Goneril’s coagulating villainy. Lorcan Cranitch’s clueless Gloucester captures best the tragedy of the occasion, his jolly, if thoughtless, demeanour winning us onside so that when Phelim Drew’s straightforward Cornwall plucks out his ‘vile jelly’ it’s an egregious sign of how Lear’s desire for an ego stroke has left society with a monstrous afterbirth.

There are those who will say that Lear is the definitive role of Roe’s career. It’s more a package holiday performance that never takes us off the beaten track.While few actors could hit the characters more guttural moments with such verve and command, he is never humbled by his disintegrating state and fails to locate the essence of Lear’s humanity. Everything is as expected but you long to experience the Lear that lives and breathes beyond the landmark moments. That shows us something about the journey through life we must all part take in that we might not have grasped before. He’s clear, impassioned and at times he blows on the embers of empathy. But it’s not enough to spring his Lear to tragic flame.

There’s no sense of journey for this great monarch, who goes from ruler of all he can see to wrack and ruin, from bully boy to broken brute. His language springs not from the stricken soul of a tattered tyrant.

Without a clear emotional trajectory it’s the plays themes of corruption and loyalty, ignorance and duty that most ring true for the audience. Cartmell has made a centuries old tale gripping and relevant, a scintillating examination of power and duty. But her cinematic aesthetic softens the almost savage sentience of the characters to the point that while you are aware of the tragedy being expressed, you are not altered by it.

What stops this great production being a remarkable one is the same thing that makes it so wonderful. Directorial abstractions seem to be added to the text rather than worked from it, so that the additives over power the flavor of truth leaving an odd taste to proceedings . Tina Kellegher’s Goneril is particularly hampered by a mystical miscarriage(shown on stage) and a poisoning with pizazz undermining the fact that she has most likely been grievously wronged throughout her life. Ciaran McMenimen is also nonexistent as Edmund. Angst and anger are both totally absent from the monologues that should confide to the audience the furious folly aroused by religious and patriarchal hypocrisy whilst the joyous malevolence from which we should illicit a cathartic buzz is seriously missed.

What Cartmell needs to do to move her process forward is figure out how to join the dots more thoroughly between her vision and what the text allows, to use the language not just as the skeleton of character but the flesh, bone and soul of the writers argument. If she does that, the audience won’t be conscious of her vision. They’ll be exhilarated by the force of its union with the greatest writer in the English language.

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