The Gods Weep

Dennis Kelly
Royal Shakespeare Company
Hampstead Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

The second new play in the RSC's short residency at Hampstead, which started so explosively with David Greig's Dunsinane, has clearly been conceived as a response to or updating of King Lear. In telling his story, Denis Kelly uses characteristically bold uncompromising language, the foulness of which could eventually begin to grate.

The Gods Weep falls into three distinct phases that are almost like separate plays in style and content and do not fit together as comfortably as they should. This might owe something to the severe cuts that were apparently necessary to bring the running time down to a still hefty three hours.

The opening section deploys broken, repetitive Pinteresque language and, while the concept may not be entirely original, it is by far the most effective.

This sees Jeremy Irons playing Colm, a ruthless city executive finally tired of backstabbing and giving up his job at the head of the boardroom table to get his hands dirty on a major project in Belize. Like Lear, he divides his global kingdom but the three portions are uneven since, while rivals Richard and Catherine get 50% each, son Jimmy is effectively disinherited.

Jonathan Slinger largely reprises his RSC success as Richard III, excelling in evil as a more modern but equally unpleasant scoundrel of the same name on the make. Helen Schlesinger as Catherine may be calmer but is still his match as a schemer and the pair tussle and make diplomatic alliances to oust the old boss. His only supporter, John Stahl's Castile, makes up in volume for his lack of potency.

After a transition that is not fully explained, the second part of the play moves on to a battlefield where forces supporting Catherine, Richard and Colm slug it out for bloody supremacy in a long and tedious war with no obvious purpose. Luke Norris in the part of Jimmy weighs in as well, taking all of his impotent aggression out on the ageing father who has given away his inheritance and at the same time stolen his pride.

In the last hour, war gives way to a quiet and touchingly intimate relationship between Colm, by now verging on madness, and Barbara his daughter in all but blood. In fact, the nursemaid-cum-carer portrayed by Joanna Horton has reason to both love and hate the man who turned up at her door with a broken arm. She is the daughter of a former business rival who, on a whim, Colm chose to destroy.

It takes a long time but eventually the pair become reconciled, more by need than intention, in a series of scenes that are clearly closely based on those between Lear and Cordelia at the end of Shakespeare's version.

Jeremy Irons gets a brief but telling opportunity to demonstrate how he might present Lear's madness, if ever given the opportunity, and in doing so might just tempt a director to cast him in that role.

There are some interesting ideas underlying The Gods Weep but Kelly and his director Maria Aberg seem to have got lost in too many byways and too much text to bring the drama down to a concise and fully coherent play that is able to illuminate either the original or speak to our own turbulent times.

Playing until 3 April

Reviewer: Philip Fisher