I used to think King Lear was next door to unactable. On our way down to my mother's in the car last week we listened to an audio version starring Paul Scofield. Scofield paces himself like a man daunted by the task ahead, growling his way through the early scenes, the better to impress with verbal gymnastics as things turn hairy. This is a great actor attempting one of the world's great roles, intent on causing awe. And of course there's not a single laugh from beginning to end. Not even the fool- played by Kenneth Branagh- is funny. At the Globe everyone got laughs. Lear's mad scenes were played as stand-up comedy. Edgar- that trickiest of roles- was introduced as Edmund's comic stooge- and for the first time in my experience the character made sense. Theatrical sense. The cast had no big names; David Calder was Lear, Paul Copley Kent; they were the only two I was sure I recognised; they're character actors, best known for supporting roles on TV. No problem- there was no sense of them falling short. The big moments were still in place, the pathos still hit home. By showing they weren't afraid of this big brute of a play, an energetic, mainly youthful cast made it tractable, managable, entertaining.
I'm not saying the Globe way is the only way to do Shakespeare; that would be silly. But I do think it's the most natural. The cult of the great actor- which we largely owe to the romantic critics- who were watching the plays on picture-window, proscenium arch stages- has thrown us a loop. We have been taught to expect great (meaning self indulgent, spotlight-hogging, stilted) acting of a kind utterly foreign to Shakespeare's rowdy stage. He wasn't writing star vehicles, he was writing for a company, for an ensemble- and the productions were flung together, minimally rehearsed, dependent for their effect on the goodwill, built up over seasons, of a mad-keen, uninhibited, easily distracted audience of all the classes. In the post-Shakespearian theatre the audience is largely passive, it sits in darkness and its members frown at other members if they rustle their sweet papers. In Shakespeare's theatre the audience is an unscripted character in the play. It cannot be ignored. It's as visible to the actors as the actors are visible to it- because the performance is happening in daylight. It has to be charmed, brought on side, humoured, answered if it heckles. If we think of Shakespeare's art as problematic- and in spite of his unassailable position as king of culture we still do- it's largely because we've been playing him all these years- centuries- in the wrong kind of theatre.