Posts Tagged ‘King Lear’

Mini-review – The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theater

January 13, 2017

I knew little about this play before I went … I thought I’d seen some blurbles in the Evening Standard ages ago (back when it opened) but they had mostly faded into dim memory. Ah yes, the show about the guy who helps an actor dress up before shows … why, certainly I’ll go at the bargain price I was being offered a ticket for. I was actually unsure if I was going to see someone who was a costume designer or a wardrobe mistress or what, exactly, and just what the arc of the story was going to be. Frankly, it was the ideal situation for me, to walk into a theater having no idea what would happen on stage but feeling confident I was going to have one of those lovely experiences that I’ve come to expect thanks to living in the world capitol of English language theater.

Plot summary: it’s World War II, and bombing is going on. We’re in the dressing room of a famous actor (Ken Stott), who’s possibly not very good, and the man who helps him get ready to go on stage (Reece Shearsmith) is worried about whether or not “sir” is going to make the show tonight. He’s never missed a performance before, but something about all of the bombing seems to have unhinged “sir,” whom his dresser, Duncan, most recently saw wandering a market taking his clothes off and babbling. Duncan’s concerns seem well founded, and we sit with him as he nervously picks his way across Sir’s dressing room, talking with Sir’s partner (Harriet Thorpe) about Sir’s mental health, and generally setting us nicely for the big arrival of The Man Himself.

A lot of this play should be about the relationship of Sir and Duncan, but it’s actually more about the interaction of all of the personalities in a touring company, as we see when the long suffering (yet apparently devoted) stage manager appears – Duncan becomes all confidence, protecting Sir from the humiliation of a cancellation – and then again when a young, manipulative actress attempts to weasel her way into Sir’s dressing room (Normal threatens her with violence). Its all nicely balanced with the actual performance at the center of the play – a Noises Off romp through King Lear, with the backstage shenanigans front and center.

While seeing Duncan disintegrate in parallel with Sir may be what this show is supposed to be about, my enjoyment was most greatly because of the complex interleaving of this play with the text and characterization of Lear. To me, Lear is the the embodiment on many levels of an actual, inevitable mental and physical collapse of older actors, who may get decades on stage but will still eventually struggle to carry on doing what they love when their bodies and minds decide they can do no more. Semi-fictionally, this was wonderfully captured in My Perfect Mind, about an actor struggling to recuperate after a stroke had while in rehearsal for Lear: more meatily, however, this struggle for an actor to keep himself together was quite viscerally brought home two years ago when Brian Blessed had a physical collapse while playing the role, a trauma nearly immediately followed by a production where another actor failed to get his head wrapped around the hard work of dialogue memorization. Macbeth may be the unlucky play, but as a role that attracts older actors, Lear is now, to me, a role far more likely to see on stage tragedy. And seeing Sir struggle to remember his first line … indeed, to even remember which role he was about to play … was the truth of life as an actor being told on stage. It was heartbreakingly real, and a pleasure to watch.

It’s all for the best, then, that so much of this play ultimately has comedy at its heart; it makes for a brisk, exciting evening despite its 130 minute running time. It’s only on through this weekend, but I do recommend a watch; I for one will probalby try to find a way to see the BBC version with Sir Ian. Either way, it’s a treat.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 5th, 2017. It continues through January 14th.)

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Review – King Lear “with sheep” – Courtyard Theater

August 23, 2015

The premise sounds enticing (per the Courtyard Theater’s website): – “A stubborn director is trying to put on a production of King Lear with a cast composed solely of sheep.” This thrilling intro seems to be enough to entice a sell-out audience to the basement of the Courtyard Theater, where we sat, reading notes on personal safety in barnyard conditions, and all apparently overwhelmingly excited to see a play in which animals are the star.

Once upstairs, there are several interesting things to note. First, when the sheep enter the auditorium, the smell is overwhelming. My God, the lanolin and the shit. It was an intense experience. Second, the sightlines are terrible. I was in the fifth row and the performers were mostly invisible – by which I mean “the sheep,” who are only knee height for a standard actor and thus nearly invisible within the confines of The Courtyard’s big stage.

Third: the premise. The whole thing is apparently a joke, which is fine with most of the audience because they are just there to see some cute sheep and have a laugh. I, however, was desperately hoping that my third attempt at King Lear this year would be at least somewhat redeeming, given that the first attempt was so poorly acted I snuck out at the interval (yes this was the Brian Blessed King Lear) and the second attempt had the lead actor insulting the audience by referring to the script for most of the show (a href=”https://webcowgirl.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/review-king-lear-the-malachites-at-peckham-asylum-chapel/”>John Mcenery was rightly ashamed of himself). How it broke down in reality wass 15 minutes of a single actor making faces and excuses; fifteen minutes of the same actor talking to costumed sheep about their failures as actors; and fifteen minutes of the three best scenes from King Lear (the storm; Gloucester’s eyes being poked out; Cordelia’s death scene, with Lear cradling a black Shetland sheep in his arms) done with sheep. None of it was particularly great, but it was short and it did give rise to about fifty puns which my husband and I rattled off at speed both before and after the show. I could share them with you, but instead I’ll say that the smell of sheep and the taste of the puns pretty much is all that this show left me with. Still: cheap and fast and still better than the other two performances, this show would have been ideal fare between other serious productions at a fringe festival, but seemed rather trivial to make a night out of when so many richer things were on offer.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday August 15th, 2015. It’ll be back on September 23rd for a longer run.)

Review – King Lear – The Malachites at Peckham Asylum Chapel

February 26, 2015

King Lear, Act Four: “I am mightily abused. I should e’en die with pity/ To see another thus. I know not what to say.” Never did these lines seem more relevant than in last night’s production of King Lear, when the mighty John McEnery was reduced to reading these words to a paying audience from a script held in his hand. I had first thought, when he pulled the papers from his pockets (before the interval!) that it was some kind of joke upon the infirmity of Lear (McEnery prefaced it by saying “We only got four days rehearsal”), but as the show carried on and he continued to read from a clearly marked script, I realized it was simply the horrible, horrible truth: our lead had not learned his lines. As he sat cradling the dying Cordelia, McEnery’s eyes flicked back and forth from her face to the pages in his hands, and any ability to suspend disbelief was utterly ruined. There were pauses as he scanned the lines looking for his place and a feeling of tension caused by the fear that the other actors (especially the very fine Fool, Samuel Clifford) might knock the crumpled lump from his hands. I felt angry and bitter and so very, very sorry for the other actors. Stephen Connery-Brown (Earl of Gloucester) and Ludovic Hughes (Edgar) nearly had me in tears as they stood on the cliff tops of Dover: how could Lear let them down so badly? Why didn’t they just put a beard on Nicholas Finegan and let him get on with being the old man? He certainly didn’t need prompting for the Malachites’ Richard II.

Is it something special about this role? Just a month before it nearly killed Brian Blessed. Is it just too much for a really old actor to do? Should we be expecting Lears to collapse on or off stage from the effort the role requires? I thought when I saw Ian McKellan in it some years ago that it was supposed to represent the crown to a career, not a tombstone; but perhaps My Perfect Mind tells the story better – that this really is just an incredibly hard struggle for someone to maintain at the end of their (acting) life and it could be just too much for an old man to manage.

If McEnery gets his homework done right, this will be a good show; he captures the role better than Blessed did (a low bar but I’ll note the Bellowing Monarch never once needed a cue), and I hope for the sake of the Malachites’ upcoming run at the Rose that this does happen in short order. As for me, I would have walked out at the insult to me as an audience member, but I’d made a commitment to review the show, so sit through it I did (with my wonderfully cheap cup of Malachite tea after the interval). The space is lovely with good acoustics, its own disintegration capturing Lear’s crumbling mind; the costuming delightfully wintery (all fur and boots and capes); the two elder sisters joyously devolve, Edgar looks damn fine in a loincloth and mud, and the blankets took care of my coldness just fine. (I found Cordelia a bit wooden but she is hardly on stage enough to bother.) But there are some stage sins that cannot be forgiven; let us hope they are not repeated in the days to come.

(This review is for Wednesday, February 25th, which was nearly a full week since opening night and well long enough to get that script memorized no matter what excuses McEnery muttered. It continues through March 5th and then I was told is moving to the Rose theater April 7 through 30th.)

Review – Brian Blessed’s King Lear – Guildford Shakespeare Company at Guildford Holy Trinity Church

January 23, 2015

It was impossible to resist the draw of one of my favorite British actors starring in one of the best of the Shakespeares – Brian Blessed in King Lear – even though it meant I was going to have to trek to Guildford to do it and watch an amateur theater company attack (possibly literally) the play. And God knew what it meant that it was going to be performed in a church – bad sightlines? The horror of three hours in pews? Or … worst of all … that I was going to spend the money and time travelling outside of London only to discover that my entire reason for going had collapsed on stage and was no longer to be seen in the production?

After this truly bad bit of news flashed through the wires Tuesday, I was relieved to hear no further news of illness on Blessed’s part. I was excited about being a part of his Lear, but I didn’t want to be a part of some horrible tragic history. The front of house confirmed on my arrival that all was well and there had been no sign of any illness on his part Wednesday night – whew! My companion and I dropped our rented cushions on our chair (I was in the fifth row and sightlines were good), and I ducked out to the Sainsbury’s to grab a quick sandwich – while they did have drinks and crisps, there was no cafe in the church, and even though I’d gone straight after work, I’d only actually made it to Guildford at 7 PM, meaning no sit down dinner was possible. (In case you’re wondering, it’s only a ten minute walk to the church from the main Guildford station, so there’s no need for a cab.)

At last the lights darkened and the cast gathered on stage – the opening lines were spoken – and Brian Blessed walked on stage! I wanted to shout “Blessed’s alive!” but restrained myself, as did the rest of the audience who avoided a tacky welcome ovation in favor of breathless silence. At last, it begins!

Thus started the loudest and most comic version of a Shakespearean tragedy I had ever witnessed. Blessed bellowed, he capered, he chortled, he took every turn to display his fantastic voice but never once relaxed into a quiet moment. No, this was Lear the war hero, Lear the man of action, Lear who was loud and noisy and fully capable of tossing ay of the other actors through the scenery. Every transition was signaled by some of the most horrifying organ music ever to grace the stage, lending the entire affair the air of a Hammer Horror, or possibly Carry On Ranting. The effect was greatly aided by the church setting, as all of the trappings were in place – you could easily imagine that behind the curtains someone was positively gouting fake blood while the cameras rolled and we got ready for the reveal that there had been a murder in the cathedral.

But, no, what was really going on was a performance of King Lear that was bleeding dry through a lack of subtlety, so much so that when one character walked on stage and spoke I briefly thought we were getting a guest visit from Baldric. To be honest, I was actually very pleased with the performances of Edmund (the “evil bastard”), who was deliciously bad at a level that almost matched Lear; and the nuanced performance of Gloucester. But all such things were washed away in the tide of crayon colored Bard that gushed from nearly every level of this production. I did feel a bit of a twinge of tragedy about the whole thing, a brief fear as Blessed grasped his heart in a moment which, as it turned out, was thankfully in the script: it reminded me of another Lear, one who was truly undone and nearly unmade by his health, as documented in the play My Perfect Mind. Lear is an old man’s tale and it’s one that many actors perform at the end of their careers. I’m glad this was not the final show for Brian Blessed, and that I got to see him on stage in his own, full, roaring glory; but some tiny bit of me wished I was seeing a better Lear and a little less Blessed. Ah well. If nothing else, I saw enough to not feel obligated to wait through to the end of the second half, and I did manage to get home right about eleven. It was certainly an event and worth £25, but your joy levels may be different from mine.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, January 22, 2015. It continues through February 14th.)

Review – King Lear – Almeida Theatre

September 18, 2012

It’s easy to get jaded about theater in London. You get big stars all the time (this for me means movie stars, not TV stars), and a quantity of shows that beggars belief. You get the new stuff, you get the classics, you get MULTIPLE versions of classics in one year.

Well, actually, now we’re starting to talk about the problem areas. Seriously, how many TOP NAME ACTORS do we need to see in Hamlet in one year? Is there any excuse for having three Henry IVs part 1 in the same month? Maybe we should be … doing more experimental work? Maybe the big name actors should be pushing the envelope by getting involved in new shows? I mean … does anyone get the feeling maybe the theaters are trying to play it safe with BIG NAME PEOPLE in REALLY FAMOUS PLAYS? Not that I’m complaining about a Long Day’s Journey with David Suchet, and, hey, that girl from Dr Who is in Lucy Prebble’s new play The Effect at the National (though she’s a TV star – still, enough of an effect to make the show a sell-out before it even went to general booking) … but sometimes it feels like there’s not enough risk taking from the theaters or the actors.

Which, I think, brings us pretty squarely to King Lear at the Almeida Theater. It’s pretty safe programming, and the Almeida has loaded the dice by filling the cast with a bunch of big names, none of which I recognized (this is true in real life for me as well as the theater). However, people were very excited about Jonathan Pryce being in it, and even though I haven’t seen him in anything since Brazil, I thought, hey, I ought to go, especially when the Almeida was being nice and offering some bloggers comps to attend very early in the run. I hoped that I’d be ready for it it even though I’d just got back from a week of kayaking in Sicily and was somewhat suspicious about the need for me to see another Lear so soon after Sir Ian’s performance …

Lear, as ever, starts off by alienating the audience (as he alienates “good daughter” Cordelia, a very regal Phoebe Fox), and part of the journey of the actor is, I think, to pull us around to sympathizing with Lear rather than thinking that we’d throw him out if he were our dad. And, well, ew, for some reason director Michael Attenborough decided to have Lear give some incestuous-seeming kisses to the “good” daughters, and that just turned me against Lear in a way I was not able to overcome across the course of the evening. Gloucester (Clive Wood) is a different story – he is lied to and misled, and shows himself to have a strong moral fiber lacking in at least half of the other characters. Thus, to me, he is a real figure of tragedy; Lear, however, is more of an Oedipus, a man deservingly brought down by the gods for his pride.

The ensemble is very strong in this cast – amazing to see the wealth of talent available to the English stage in the over-sixty set – and the design work is extremely effective in the admittedly small Almeida space. But I was never able to emotionally connect to the action on stage. Perhaps it was too close to my return from a long vacation (though I Am a Camera the night before was very enjoyable) … perhaps it was directorial choices. At either rate, I left unmoved, and with the feeling that for some plays, three years between productions is just not enough.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 12th, 2012. It continues through November 3rd.)

King Lear at the New London Theater or: I saw Gandalf’s willie last night

November 26, 2007

Last night was what shall be known as the Ian McKellan King Lear at the New London Theater (where my uncle saw Cats “back when they were just kittens”), which the three of us saw with Wechsler. I wish I could go on and on about how brilliant it was, but it was as brilliant as a Lexus or something – really well designed but not, somehow, compelling. Yeah, Sir Ian handled Lear’s entire mental arc very nicely, but I just didn’t really care. I was bizarrely caught up in the Gloucester story, which, truth (and uncle) be told, could have been utterly excised and left the plot intact. It was neat to really catch Cordelia’s humiliation, and Goneril and Regan were just brilliantly evil, but … I don’t know. We had good seats. I was not moved. (Wechsler was moved to leave during intermission due to post-new-flat exhaustion. I was a bit sorry I hadn’t just been able to scalp his ticket, but there you go.)

Also, it appears “the second Doctor” or some such was in this show as the Jester, but I don’t know one from the other and didn’t buy a program so can’t say for certain. At the end there was a bit of a standing ovation, but I’m not going to clap for Sir Ian because he’s Sir Ian, I would only clap for the actor who played Lear last night, and he was good, but he didn’t move me. Maybe the show’s just been running for so long that it’s lost all of its energy. God only knows I’ve lost most of mine.

(This review is for the performance of Monday, November 26th.)