Jacobi’s Lear: a heartbreaking vision

Guest blogger, Angela Cartwright, writes…

Like many, no doubt, I find myself drawn to dramatic productions of King Lear. It’s not so much that I yearn for something new and fresh (after all, the text off the page in any interpretation is bound to entertain), but there’s always the possibility that this might occur. Not necessarily throughout an entire production but somewhere.

And in this regards, Sir Derek Jacobi’s performance as Lear in Michael Grandage’s 2010 production for the Donmar Warehouse did not disappoint. For me, there was one moment in particular that was simply unforgettable.

It’s all too familiar: the storm is heard brewing at the end of Act II and it then forms the backdrop for Act III. And it is usually such a dominating feature that it can be quite difficult to hear the speeches clearly above the cataclysmic racket. Certainly, I’ve seen many productions where Lear has personified the storm by shouting and blustering his way through the well-known speech: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

But not this production and not Jacobi.

Instead, the sound of the storm fell away dramatically and the audience seemed entirely still as well as silent as the world of Lear assumed a hushed and altogether disturbing atmosphere. And only then did Jacobi begin. His delivery of this speech was absolutely spellbinding and also quite frightening. Rather than opting for an outward display of rage, Jacobi’s Lear quietly internalized the metaphoric storm and in this way offered a harrowing glimpse into the devastating effects of an ailing mind.
Never before had I been so confronted and affected by the pitiable spectacle of this king – this man – losing his 5 wits and much, much more besides. And as a consequence, tears – hitherto unbidden so early in the play – were called forth and shed, because of the rather surprising and overwhelming pathos generated by this heartbreaking vision.

I’ve wondered whether this interpretation — and perhaps also my response to it — was informed by the reality our aging society and its increasing demands on an ailing health system. There may well be something in that but, that being said, the truth of the matter is that the play itself accommodated this interpretation. And to my mind, the fact that this play could deliver something so seemingly modern and breathtakingly real — after so many centuries and countless productions — is more than enough proof of its brilliance.

Angela Cartwright

Considering Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Paul Kasay, writes…

I used to be relatively confident in my idea of Shakespeare. Or at least I thought there wasn’t much to know, and that seemed almost the same thing as having an opinion. I’m relieved to say I no longer have that kind of confidence. Instead, I have more doubt as to what he meant than ever before: every critic and authoritative text always seeming to offer another lovely contradiction. I’m also more confident in the idea that this kind of doubt is the point.

Much has been said about William Shakespeare: historic analysis from various schools of thought; ideas on the importance of the author; or the importance of his context; or the importance of his later editors; or the influence of his contemporaries. With everything from complex close readings on character intent to the more subtle debates on how to properly act out “Exit, pursued by a bear” (The Winter’s Tale, III, iii). For all that has been said, there are always more words, and always more room for them.

In the end, the questions Shakespeare poses are more powerful when they are considered, not when they are answered: considerations of identity and death, love and folly, the uses of power, and the psychological responses to grief. In every raging soliloquy to every spritely aside, Shakespeare defies the attempts to assign easy morals or quiet conclusions. Whether this is due to the veil of history or the fog of fame or the clear expressions of a master artist, and more than likely it is all of these things, there is always the sense that “this our life exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones and good in everything” (As You Like It, II, i). A good life is, after all, filled with heroes and villains, the ordinary and the complex, and the odd ways they switch roles.

If mystery most properly describes life, then Shakespeare as an artist, and then as a man, comes as close as possible to saying it truly. In the end, he is one of the only authors great enough to encompass it, touching on more than many can consider. Not simplicity in fiction, but a recasting of life recognizable yet elevated, shown for all its potentially brilliant tragedy and oscillating beauty. Even now, Shakespeare seems far more alive than dead, no matter what you thought of him in high school.

Paul Kasay

Staging King Lear

Guest blogger, Jonny Patrick, writes…

My favourite moment in Shakespeare is the scene in King Lear where the blind Gloucester is led by his son Edgar to the cliffs of Dover, where he intends to commit suicide. Gloucester does not know that his guide is Edgar, who has taken on the disguise of the madman Poor Tom.

Gloucester has lost his sight; we have ours. However, what we are about to see will make us question its reliability, morality, even its desirability. We watch as Edgar leads his father forward, telling him that he is now “within a foot / Of th’extreme verge” (IV, vi). He gives a dizzying verbal picture of the view from the precipice. Gloucester tells him to leave and Edgar does so. What, we ask ourselves, is Edgar playing at? Will he really let his father jump? Is this some kind of revenge for Gloucester’s earlier injustices towards him? In an aside, Edgar addresses the question, but tells us merely “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it”. In this play about eyes, where should we look: at the man about to leap or at his son, who must surely stop this from happening?

Then Gloucester jumps. He falls, and is prostrate onstage. So he’s dead? Have we really just watched a man leap to his death? Edgar himself is unsure and runs up to Gloucester. Assuming a new accent and persona, he shouts to Gloucester, who wakes up. Once again, Shakespeare pitches us into confusion. Have we just watched a man jump from a cliff and survive? Or have we just seen him die then rise from the dead? Gloucester himself is unsure: “But have I fallen or no?” Ultimately, we can work out that this is an elaborate ruse by Edgar, designed to trick his father out of his suicidal despair by convincing him that he has been miraculously preserved. Gloucester’s leap landed him on the ground before him; Edgar never took him to the edge. But Edgar/Shakespeare is toying with us too: was that really what we saw?

I can think of nothing more purely theatrical than this scene. On the radio or on film, it just can’t work in the same way. It has to be done on a bare stage; make the staging realistic and you give away that Gloucester hasn’t jumped at all. It’s a soul-saving experience for Gloucester and a theatrical miracle.

Jonny Patrick
Head of English, St Paul’s Girls’ School

Contemporary Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Charlotte Highcock, writes…

Throughout my education within English Literature, Shakespeare has always played a vital role. The diversity of plays, poems and sonnets is what makes each new encounter of Shakespeare so innovative and enjoyable. Personally, the best aspect of Shakespeare is how unique each interpretation of his work can be. For example, my first viewing of a theatrical adaptation of a Shakespearean play was a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. As a pre-GCSE student, this allowed me to gain easy access to Shakespeare and ensured the start of my enthusiasm of his works.

One of my favourite plays is Othello. The way in which Shakespeare was able to capture the “Moor’s” degrading treatment within society, humbly referring to others as “most potent, grave and reverend signors,” shows how racism was even seen within the Jacobean era, enhancing how contemporary Shakespeare can be. Additionally, the focus on tragedy is another key aspect which I find is what distinctly makes Shakespeare one of the best, if not the best, English playwright, and makes plays such as Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet so successful on stage.

Projects such as this are vital to keeping Shakespeare alive. It will be wonderful to make Shakespeare even more accessible, particularly to students studying at GCSE or A-Level, who may only be exposed to certain set texts.

Charlotte Highcock

Apropos Macbeth

Guest blogger, Ligia Luckhurst, writes…

In the winter of 1980, I saw Peter O’Toole as Macbeth at the Old Vic. Yes, that production, and for all the wrong reasons: at that time, aged 28, I was, as I still am at age of 60, in love with O’Toole.

On the evening, my normal reasoning and perceiving faculties were cancelled out. I started getting ready hours before the show, and only minutes later discovered that I had half an hour left to traverse London from north to south, find the Old Vic theatre, present my ticket and take my seat.

Sean Feeney was already on the stage when I got in. He was grey-haired and spectral, speaking the verses in that peculiar staccato way that is uniquely his. I was full of awe. I felt I was in the presence of a being who knew everything and who had experienced everything.

And that is what is wrong with most productions of Macbeth: Macbeth is wise, doomed and despairing from the start, whilst the play is in fact about acquiring pointless wisdom at a terrible price.

Years later, I saw Sam Walters’ production at The Orange tree in Richmond. It was an eye-opener.

Who is Macbeth, really? A soldier, a Joe Bloggs inhabiting a clean-cut world of dos and don’ts, who suddenly receives notification of having won the Reader’s Digest Prize Draw, provided he returns his lucky numbers in the envelope labelled ‘Yes’?

When he does, he wades through rivers of blood to learn that the world is a tale told by an idiot, with sound and fury.

At that stage, of course, he is no longer Joe Bloggs, nor is there anything left for him to do but to die: the whole of his life’s potential has been used up as payment for this obscene knowledge.

And why was he chosen as winner of the Prize Draw? Because Macbeth is the sort of bloke who can be depended upon to return his lucky numbers. Blokes who return their numbers make the tale told by an idiot go round. That is Macbeth in a nutshell.

Joe Bloggs, however, is one thing O’Toole could not be and he was right not to have tried to. He was grand and extravagant; he made us sit up and listen, whether we liked it or not. And that was good and as it should be.

Ligia Luckhurst

Malleable Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Jakub Boguszak, writes…

What surprises me again and again each time I get to perform in a Shakespeare play is how malleable one’s own reading of a play can become once the rehearsal process begins.

There are so many inflections the text acquires only when a situation is physically enacted, when one is forced to respond to other people’s ideas of what their characters and scenes are about; one can look forward to playing the solemn, magisterial and cool Prospero only to discover that he can be actually quite funny in front of an audience (The Tempest); apparently routine lines can gain profound significance when spoken out loud to somebody else (as in Antony and Cleopatra, when Charmian responds with her dying breath: “Ah, soldier!”); the presence of silent characters on stage can turn out to be essential for the architecture of a scene.

I was fortunate to perform in 4 Shakespeare plays produced by an experienced director who gave us the freedom to explore the text ourselves and find its meaning through dialogue – on stage and off. In this sense, the plays became ours as we had to negotiate the meaning of the scenes and the overall progress of the story, while at the beginning only some of us were acquainted with more than our own parts and the basic premise of the play (as indeed was the case with Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men).

A director can always explain what he or she thinks a particular situation is about and make the actors channel the idea, but I believe that Shakespeare in performance tends to be more rewarding when the actors themselves surprise and challenge one another: whenever the manner of an actor’s response prevents me from acting in the way I imagined my character to act when I was reading the play, I learn something new.

This process can be confusing and frustrating, as all sacrifices and compromises tend to be, but when a director can serve as a moderator of these exchanges, the chance that something both original and true emerges in the performance increases dramatically. If, in the end, the collective effort does not bring about a spectacular production rich with fresh insights, we can always return to the texts themselves and stage the plays in our minds the way we would like them to be staged. Pity we can then only bow to ourselves.

Jakub Boguszak

The Merchant’s Servant

Guest blogger, David Schajer, writes…

my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew. The fiend gives the more friendly counsel: I will run, fiend; my heels are at your command; I will run.

 

The Merchant of Venice, II ii

My favourite Shakespeare experience was when I was re-reading The Merchant of Venice, specifically the speech by Shylock’s servant Launcelot where he debates whether or not to leave his master.

Launcelot speaks of the “fiend” who tells him to leave Shylock, and his “conscience” which tells him not to leave. Finally the fiend wins out. Launcelot decides to run away.

I wondered why Shakespeare wrote such a long speech for such a minor character. Who cares if he leaves Shylock? Was there some deeper meaning?

Then it hit me. The role of Launcelot would have been first performed, on the stage of the Theatre in Shoreditch perhaps, by the famous Elizabethan actor Will Kemp, known for comedic roles.

What I realized is that there is no deeper meaning — the speech is a comedy routine. Kemp is taking the temperature of his audience, to see how they feel about Shylock. He wants the crowd to make noise, and speak their minds aloud.

At first I thought that the entire audience would be unsympathetic to Shylock, and would yell at Launcelot to leave him. Shylock has long been portrayed as a villain, sometimes an inhuman villain and more recently as a human being, a good man undone by his anger. So, I imagined that Shakespeare’s audience would hate Shylock, the villain.

Then it dawned on me that Shakespeare would not have written the speech if the entire audience hated Shylock. The speech invites debate and disagreement from the audience. The fact that the question is asked at all is an indication that there would be some sympathy for Shylock, the Jew, even in Elizabethan London.

Why would be there any sympathy for Shylock? Because Shylock is not the villain but in fact the hero of the play.

At the time, I did not know how or why he is the hero, but it was this this speech that was the key to unlocking the play and proving that this, arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem play” is not a tragicomedy where Shylock is the villain, but in fact a very bawdy farce where the only character with any character is Shylock.

David Schajer

“The play’s the thing”

Guest blogger, Caroline Astley, writes…

This summer brought Shakespeare’s Globe’s performance of Hamlet to the Bodleian Library Quad. After a string of wet evenings, I ventured down to the open-air Old Schools Quadrangle in the hope that, weather permitting, I would be in for an evening of theatre in classic Shakespearean style; given that Hamlet is considered the Bard’s most popular and performed play, and the Bodleian provided The Globe with a majestic, historical setting with which to bring it to life, I was not to be disappointed.

The Shakespeare’s Globe season at the Bodleian is a well-lived tradition, now in its fifth year. The Oxfordian location is ideal, almost rivalling The Globe’s own Elizabethan-style theatre, famously situated on London’s South Bank. Completed in 1619, three years after Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian Library’s Old Schools Quadrangle is a suitably epic setting for a production of the well-known tragedy. Hamlet‘s touring set was similarly designed to feel contemporary with a seventeenth-century aesthetic; although more bare and stripped-down in appearance than the decadent Globe, the modest staging served as a perfect backdrop to the dramatic performance of a play which, as the Globe’s own flyer puts it, is “the fullest expression of Shakespeare’s genius”.

As seats filled and the sun remained out, the players gathered on stage in true Globeian style, with a handful of instruments, and began to strum a simple tune. Tom Lawrence (Horatio) came forward, introducing the play with a cry of “we have played a rainy Portsmouth, a wet and windy Poole and a stormy Cambridge: and, now, here we are in sunny Oxford!” The relief among audience and actors was unanimous.

Yet, regardless of the miraculous sunshine, Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst’s direction would have withstood any weather: fresh and fast-paced, it made the two-and-a-half-hour performance fly by, despite dropping temperatures as the evening wore on. Michael Benz was raw yet dynamic as Hamlet, perfectly capturing the frantic paranoia of the Danish prince. Refreshingly youthful, Benz sold the angst and insecurity of his character, exposing his vulnerability beneath a carefully-constructed veneer of bravado. Treading the line between madness and sanity, Benz agitatedly dramatized the grief, frustration, anger and hysteria of the young prince.

A tragedy in the traditional sense, the production remained light in the first half through plenty of witty humour; lines delivered in a smart, subtle fashion from Benz and Christopher Saul (Polonius) kept the audience laughing. A comic interpretation of the play within the play, The Murder of Gonzalo, saw the end of the first half and, also, an end to the humour. After a brief interval, in which members of the audience could peruse the Bodleian’s Hamlet display in the Proscholium (as well as a warm bar set up in the stunning Divinity School), the production turned into a spiralling descent of tragic death and despair. In quick succession, Polonius’s murder, Ophelia’s madness (played with poignancy by Carlyss Peer), and the demise of Hamlet himself were executed with a deft handling of the catastrophic drama.

In a perfect kick-off to the summer of Sprint for Shakespeare, Dromgoole and Buckhurst’s Hamlet did not fail to meet expectations of the much-anticipated performance at the Bodleian Library. An exciting rendition of a traditional classic, The Globe managed to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s most popular play while remaining stripped down to its bare essentials. Not to be missed.

Shakespeare’s Globe is on tour with Hamlet until 1 September 2012.

Caroline Astley

Remarkable Puck

Guest blogger, Jo Willcox, writes…

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth

In forty minutes.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II i

I have an unforgettable memory from my schooldays of a remarkable Puck. We had an annual Shakespeare competition in which each House had to present a scene from Shakespeare without scenery, with minimal props and in school uniform. As a 12-year-old newcomer I watched entranced an amazing Puck who in due course made a most spectacular exit. With one enormous bound she leapt from the platform out of the side door of the Hall as she set out to put a girdle round the earth.

She was later to become one of our much loved thespian Dames.

I regret to say that I cannot remember which House won the competition that year, but I like to think it was ours.

Jo Willcox

A third more opulent

Guest blogger Robert Stagg writes…

what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’?

(King Lear Folio I, i, 85-6)

In speaking, the actor playing Lear – let alone Cordelia – must consider not only “what” to say but how to say it. In offering “A third more opulent than your sisters’”, does he emphasise “more” or “opulent”? – that is to say, does Lear think Cordelia will be allured by sheer wealth or sororal competition? Two different stress-routes are offered through the lines.

Two months ago, I was experiencing another problem of stress. I was writing a 10,000-word Master’s dissertation while rehearsing to play Lear in a psychology experiment. Audiences would see two different versions of King Lear I, i and I, ii. One version presented an affable Lear ruined by Cordelia’s refusal to join in his joke. The other showed the audience a king leering at his daughter, managing the family succession with a thin-faced relish. The affable Lear stressed a “more opulent” third in a playful manner; the second Lear laid emphasis on “opulent”, his eyes shining at the spoken riches.

An actor’s decision to place stress on “opulent” seems to accord with expectations of an iambic line; the first syllable of “opulent” (“op”) acquires stress if we are to read the line iambically. But the “o” of “opulent” is helped and enabled by the previous “o” in “more”. There is almost an elision or slur between the o’s. So stressing “opulent” comes with the permission of, and certainly not at the expense of, “more” – an auxiliary disruption of the iambic pattern.

Shakespeare, then, does not exactly give advice to the players (as Peter Hall’s book title, drawing on Hamlet, misleadingly promises). Here, Shakespeare does the opposite; he plays with the iambic advice of the line, makes it more difficult than counting syllables on fingers. Instead, the players are given a possibility or possibilities. From this small matter of stress – “more” or “opulent”? – comes an impression of Lear’s attitude to Cordelia and, with it, our attitude towards her. Does he think her greedy or competitive, and how so? Does his voice command our confidence in that judgement, or judgements? In a stutter, or a stumble, or a stress, worlds of possibility loop out from individual lines – like the parallel worlds or universes of modern physics – and create a staging of the play. The actor cannot play all the worlds at once; but he can hear a glimpse of its aspects from the stresses and strains of Shakespeare’s lines.

Robert Stagg