Lear finds himself rejected by all his daughters, and loses his mind. Redemption is eventually found when he discovers grace and purity. But what remains of interest is the rationale behind his torment. In King Lear, we look at issues surrounding mortality, kinship and honour, and examine how it is that good people can turn bad. The provocative difference between the elder “vicious sisters” Goneril and Regan and the youngest Cordelia with a heart of gold, along with our observations of the king’s narcissism reflected in his immoral daughters’ greed, are pertinent to this discussion of evil and its roots. In the glaring absence of a maternal figure, a direct correlation can be made between Lear’s downfall and the depravity he had encouraged in his children. The tragedy is karmic, and Shakespeare’s morality play warns of the consequences one has to to reap from the seeds that are sowed.
The play is long and complex, with characters and narratives that can be explored endlessly. Finding a focus for a production of King Lear is crucial, and although Neil Armfield’s rendition is not short of drama and energy, its scope seems to be too wide, with too ambitious an approach. In its earnest efforts at unearthing nuance, it loses sight of elements that deliver poignancy, and the show is only able to resonate sporadically. Armfield’s trust in actors is evident. Personalities on stage are idiosyncratic, and the formidable lead players are certainly vibrant and appealing, but their work would benefit from greater manipulation by their director.
Geoffrey Rush’s vulnerability takes centre stage in his portrayal of Lear. His descent into madness is not particularly startling, but we are drawn into the authentic humanity that Rush reveals in states of devastation. He puts on a spirited performance, but bodily positions are often overly crouched, obscuring facial and physical expressions from view of the very large auditorium, making audience connection challenging at many points. Lear’s most theatrical scenes are interpreted with insufficient power, including an underwhelming death, but Rush’s way with words remains unquestionable and a real highlight of the production.
Stealing the show is Mark Leonard Winter who spends a majority of his stage time as Edgar completely naked. Nudity is difficult for any actor (and audience), but Winter overcomes the issue beautifully by arresting our attention, away from his body, onto a captivating performance that is dynamically varied and emotionally compelling. The actor displays a tenacious and magnetic conviction, as well as a commanding presence, balanced by extraordinary sensitivity, all outstanding qualities conspiring to create the most memorable supporting role of the play.
Also impressive are Robert Cousin’s sets and Nick Schlieper’s lights. The visions they create are breathtaking, and truly fascinating. Act Two in particular, begins with actors seemingly floating in a vast white of nothingness, where for a few seconds, no end and no beginning to space can be perceived. The manufacture of a storm, complete with an oversized wind machine and water falling incessantly from above, provide a sensational spectacle and additional dimension to what the actors work hard to achieve. The aesthetic is best described as minimal. We can sense the purposeful subtraction that has taken place to leave the various empty spaces for activity to occur, but the effectiveness of this bareness is clearly debatable. The production proves that King Lear‘s story can be told with few objects and visual symbols, but it will never be known if all that has been taken away is indeed redundant.
We hurt the ones we love most, and family is where the thin line between love and hate is most pronounced. It is because the people are important, that our emotions cannot disengage. Betrayal can only come from trust, and it is both sides of that same coin that Lear’s story addresses. The end is deeply pessimistic but all tragedies leave behind a future, and the audience is an unequivocal part of it. How we move away from each tragic ending matters. Not every ending will bring elevation to life. Cordelia dies in her father’s arms after a period of sorrowful estrangement. Her demise is bittersweet. But for those who witness it, time is on our side, we hold on to the belief that better is always possible.