2016 is proving to be the Year of Lear. Shakespeare’s most troubled tragedy seems to be dominating his anniversary year — it’s hitting stages with Anthony Sher and Glenda Jackson in the titular role, and has been the subject of both historical and performance-centered scholarship. It’s also Creation Theatre’s Spring production, currently running at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, as part of Oxford’s Shakespeare festival.
Creation Theatre set out to find ‘unusual spaces’ to stage their plays, and the Norrington Room has proved to be a pretty perfect space for King Lear. With audience members nestled among the alcoves holding volumes on philosophy, religion, and psychology, there seems to be no more fitting setting for Lear’s descent into madness. The written word is pivotal in Lear — miscommunication and manipulation largely occur via letter, when there is no physical presence to confirm or refute their meaning. So holding the play surrounded by books added an extra layer of horror, Gloucester becoming completely enveloped by the words that bring about his downfall, and Mad Tom’s garbled speech set at odds with the orderliness of the book texts. Plus, the titles emblazoned on the shelves contributed an unobtrusive but pleasing irony — I watched Lear throw himself at the mercy of his daughters, and Cornwall gouge out Gloucester’s eyes, against a backdrop that loudly announced the ‘LOGIC’ and ‘ETHICS’ sections of the shelving. Within this play on language and context, the written word emerged as a site of multiple meaning — treacherous in its oppressiveness, cruel in its ambiguity, and unforgiving in its clarity.
Aside from setting, the production also has another twist — it’s staged with only five actors. You can’t fault the scope of Creation’s vision in this respect. King Lear is full of characters, so to set it with only five players initially seems like a fool’s game. It far outstrips the precedent for Cordelia and the Fool being played by a single actress. Max Gold as King Lear was the only cast member not to hold down multiple roles, with Morgan Philpott single-handedly taking on Edmund, Oswald, Albany, Cornwall, and France, and Natasha Rickman playing not only Kent, but Goneril and Regan as well (often simultaneously).
In many ways, having actors step seamlessly between roles was an inspired idea. It brought out resonances between characters, and the temptation to divide the cast into “good and evil” camps was avoided by casting Kent between two actors, and having the gentle France and sadistic Cornwall played by the same man. It also contributed to the sense of disorientation that Lear experiences as he slowly goes mad (although I imagine that the constant role-swapping might have been immensely confusing for anyone not already extremely familiar with the plot). Furthermore the brilliance of the individual actors was beyond question. Lucy Pearson in particular shone as Cordelia, Edgar/Mad Tom, and the Fool, her angular movements and shrill voice as Tom almost unrecognisable from her stately portrayal of Lear’s banished daughter.
That said, King Lear is so affecting at least partly because it is such a physical play. In the characters of Lear and Gloucester, Shakespeare completely hollows out the human body, staging mental and physical evisceration respectively. They represent two sides of the same coin, and in Gloucester’s case especially the threat of his enemies is decidedly corporeal. Added to this, Gloucester’s physical blindness symbolises his loss of sight regarding his sons; Lear begins the play an upright man and by the middle crawls along the ground, naked, as he fails to cope with the reality of his own making — bodies mean as much as the words.
For me, therefore, the play lost some of its impact when characters spent half the play represented by scarves or jackets. This technique worked brilliantly for Creation’s staging of Henry V, in Oxford Castle, but here seemed to detract from the sheer physical heaviness of Lear. Edmund’s murder seemed only a fleeting gesture, as Philpott had to immediately step from being dead Edmund to living Albany, commenting on the former’s death. He managed the personality transition admirably, but it left no time to process the passing of one of the play’s major villains. In the same way, the final scene seemed a little disemboweled by the lack of bodies on stage. Nonetheless, even without a physically present Cordelia to weep over, Lear’s final lament for her death was heartbreaking. Alongside his reunion with Gloucester, these were two of the most striking moments of the play, both Michael Sheldon as Gloucester and Gold as Lear playing their parts with quietly understated desperation.
From a technical perspective, the greatest challenge (and, therefore, opportunity) of the play is the storm on the heath. With sound design by Matt Eaton and lighting by Ashley Bale, the storm was for the most part effectively rendered. I particularly enjoyed the incorporation of books as sound effects, giving the written word tangible impact to weave together both the physical and mental destructiveness of the storm. After this sensory battering, however, Lear’s monologue seemed a little lacklustre. It might have benefitted from being underscored by the sounds of the tempest, otherwise the storm seemed to drop away entirely for Lear to speak. This may well have been due to opening night technical issues, but having Lear in control of the storm, rather than at its mercy, battling to be heard, seemed to undermine its all-consuming chaos.
Sound and lighting also contributed to an underlying theme of the production: namely, the role of technology in Lear’s world of madness and revenge. The play opened to an indistinct electronic soundtrack and cold blue lighting, a combination that has become theatrical convention for a ‘place out of time’. Distressed costumes, sensory disorientation, and some kind of comment on contemporary technology will surely follow, and Creation’s Lear ticked all of these boxes. What I was uncertain about, however, was precisely what commentary was being provided here. There was a play on celebrity culture with Lear handing out his kingdoms in an Oscars-style ceremony, the very public altercation between him and his daughters only made possible through the amplification provided by on-stage microphones. Gloucester’s words about Edgar are recorded and repeatedly played back to him, becoming a literal technological albatross as the voice recorder hangs from his neck, his words taking on a life of their own in mediated form. But “technology” seemed to float as a generalised idea, rather than honing in on a specific aspect to make a critical point. Stephen Hyde’s King Lear, which ran at the O’Reilly last year, targeted film and how the perspective of the cameraman alters the viewer’s perception of a situation, live-broadcasting the onstage action to highlight the one-sidedness of the camera’s gaze. This production might have been enhanced by a similar approach, perhaps making more of the possibilities of the recorded word to run alongside and against the setting saturated with script, and the stage filled with speech.
Creation describe their productions as ‘eccentric, unexpected, fun, lively, quirky, fast’. Their interpretation of Lear is certainly all of these, and their cast and creative team have once again proved their extraordinary ability to be able to not only adapt to creative spaces, but to enhance and transform them almost beyond recognition. Their fluid casting may work better for comedy than this inescapably bleak tragedy, but Creation always offer something unique. Their tailor-made productions acknowledge the potential of a space to mould a performance, and their actors are consistently superb. This is a Lear ‘not like any version you’ve seen before’, and you’re unlikely to see one like it again.