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Tony Grist

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King Lear At The Globe [Jun. 17th, 2008|09:22 am]
Tony Grist
We were in London last Friday, watching King Lear at the Globe. Who'd have thought the old play had so many laughs in it? Doing it on that huge, draughty, open stage, in daylight, with the audience lounging around in the yard, turns it into a raw slice of folk theatre- edging towards vaudeville at times. I've never seen actors in a classic play deal so directly with an audience, stepping up to the edge of the stage and talking to us direct. The nature of the playing space almost compels this kind of relationship- and that a jokey kind of intimacy should be built up. What a lot we lost when we ditched the Elizabethan stage for the proscenium arch. Doing Shakespeare in his own way, on his own stage makes so much sense of him. You understand, for instance, why he uses so many words- it's because you can count on a tithe of them getting lost- thrown away in the breakneck pace of the performance, drowned out by extraneous or audience noise, lost in the vastness of the space.

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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2008-06-17 10:24 am (UTC)
The first time I saw King Lear (never having read it, and therefore only knowing the bits everyone quotes), I was surprised how close it comes to a happy ending. The final catastrophe is quite a brutal switch. That fits with the production you're describing.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-17 10:49 am (UTC)
That's right. The death of Cordelia is a shocker. It comes out of nowhere. In the 18th century they hated it so much they played a rewritten version with a happy ending- in which Cordelia marries Edgar.

In the production we saw at the Globe the stage is littered with corpses at the end- and then they all get up and dance a jig, while we, the audience, clap in time- which is almost certainly what would have happened in Shakespeare's day. Brilliant!

Edited at 2008-06-17 10:50 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: saare_snowqueen
2008-06-17 11:40 am (UTC)
I totally agree with your assessment of theater played in the round. Several years ago, I saw Ian McKellen play Corialanus at the Herod Atticus arena in Athens. we were lucky enough to be invited into the crowd scenes in the pit. Corialanus is a very difficult play about a prig who basically gets what he deserves but I have never been so completely engaged with a performance.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-17 11:50 am (UTC)
That must have been an amazing experience!

Shakespeare can be done on any kind of stage- and even on film- but he wrote with a particular kind of theatre in mind- playing to its strengths and evading its weaknesses- and the nearer we can get to approximating it the closer we'll be to realising his intentions.
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[User Picture]From: rosamicula
2008-06-17 11:52 am (UTC)
This article - fully credited, is now being added to the A level teaching resources pack for King Lear. Hope that's okay!

Jxx
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-17 01:13 pm (UTC)
Oh wow. Yes, certainly. I'm hugely honoured.
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[User Picture]From: heleninwales
2008-06-17 01:48 pm (UTC)
When I did the OU Shakespeare course that was the forerunner of the one Ailz is doing, I'd noticed that Shakespeare has a tendency to say things twice, one in fancy words and the second time more plainly. I assumed that it was to appeal to different levels of education, but you're right about needing to allow for stuff lost in the kerfuffle of the active audience.

This actually is something that annoys me about some radio plays. The writers and producers seem to think that one is sitting immobile between two perfectly tuned speakers and giving one's whole attention to the play, whereas in reality one it probably driving or cleaning the kitchen and thus can't be guaranteed to catch every single syllable.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-17 06:06 pm (UTC)
Watching Lear at the Globe, with the actors going at break-neck speed, a good deal of the text just washes over you- but certain phrases- usually the very simple, unadorned ones- stand out clearly. Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing.

I don't often listen to radio plays. If I do it's in the car. I'm usually surprised at how good they are.
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[User Picture]From: wyrmwwd
2008-06-17 03:13 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a WONDERFUL experience! I have to make it a point to go to the Globe next time I am in London.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-17 07:17 pm (UTC)
I think they should build replicas of the Globe all over the English-speaking world.
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2008-06-17 05:47 pm (UTC)
I have seen Lear staged many times but the way you describe it at the Globe is just the way I'd always imagined it. Thanks for this, Tony. You've written the perfect post about your subject. I've put it in my memories list.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-17 07:20 pm (UTC)
I'm so pleased you like it.

I saw Tony Hopkins do Lear at the National once. He was terrible.

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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2008-06-17 08:43 pm (UTC)
I cannot imagine him as Lear, not by any stretch of my imagination. Or maybe he just wasn't feeling it.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-17 09:23 pm (UTC)
He said afterwards that he didn't really know what he was doing, but that it seemed to work if he shouted every once in a while.
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2008-06-17 11:03 pm (UTC)
Now that made me chuckle. Yes, I can see him doing that to "make it work".
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[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2008-06-17 09:12 pm (UTC)
Really glad you went to see it! I loved it!
Edgar was a Dude, wasn't he?
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-06-17 09:27 pm (UTC)
He certainly was! Many thanks for the recommendation. It's the best, most convincing Shakespeare production I've ever seem. I want to keep going back to the Globe.
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[User Picture]From: clindau
2008-06-18 03:01 am (UTC)
I love this post.

I've seen two shows at the Globe--Twelfth Night and Richard II. Both were "original practices" productions. It was amazing to stand in that yard. I could feel a vibe from 400+ years ago.

I totally agree with you about the extra words. Of course he has to repeat himself; that way he knows we get the point through all the distractions. Of course, that also means that modern directors can cut the text without fear; get rid of all the *extra* stuff, because the punters get antsy if the play runs more than two hours (heavens, we have to beat the traffic and get home to pay the babysitter!!).


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