King Lear

William Shakespeare
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
(2005)

David Warner (Lear) and John Ramm (Fool). Photo by Clare Park

It may be as Auden argued, that Lear is ultimately unstageable. For he who would play this king has to negotiate a series of summits on a lengthy and gruelling journey which has left many an actor floundering among the foothills.

One of these peaks is the storm scene on the heath in which Lear, spurned by two of his daughters, has to evince rage, despair and spiralling descent into madness; another is the scene at the close of the play featuring the death of Cordelia. Lear, broken and bound on a wheel of fire must wring our hearts. As Macbeth had it: "Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious? No man."

Of the five stage productions of the play that I have seen, this is the most complete, albeit that it takes a little while to get into its stride. It is also a more intimate setting of Lear than is usual, something which assists David Warner, back on stage acting Shakespeare after an absence of well over thirty years.

Like Nigel Hawthorne, who tackled the role of Lear at the RSC a few years ago, Warner does not have a powerful voice and wisely, perhaps, eschews any attempt to emulate the rough authority and suppressed fury of Ian Holm. Instead he opts for a gentler, more enfeebled Lear. In an early, telling gesture, Lear impulsively clutches Cordelia to him before pronouncing her banishment.

Accordingly, the early scenes are somewhat underpowered and Warner only really comes into his own after his descent into madness. But the later scenes in particular are moving and his mourning for the dead Cordelia especially so.

The staging of the play, which is directed by Steven Pimlott, will be familiar with those who experienced his recent production of Richard II. Thus a piece of turf with poppies serves suggests the countryside through which Lear, Gloucester and Edgar make their way after their expulsion or flight from court.

This minimalism focuses attention on the acting which is often of a very high order indeed. Jo Stone-Fewings is terrific in 'poor Tom' mode, convincing in what can often be a risible part. Other fine performances come from John Ramm, most recently seen in Pedro the Great Pretender for the RSC, as the Fool. In a change of tack from recent interpretations of the role he is both younger than Lear and less cynical. His foolery arises from his evident love for Lear and his desire to curb his folly and later on, to distract the king from his pain. Also excellent is Lou Gish, suitably venomous and bloody as Goneril.

And bloody this Lear certainly is. More than a few members of the audience were visibly discomfited at the blinding of Gloucester during which an 'eyeball' was produced and hurled to the floor. The first interval allowed staff to mop up the gore while the capacity crowd comforted itself with a much-needed drink.

Thereafter the production gathers pace and grip which is unrelenting until the end. Visually it is often beautiful. One scene with Edgar and Gloucester is strikingly played out by torchlight only. At times some of the later scenes reminded me of paintings by Bacon, appropriately enough, given the content. In Macbeth, a character remarks that nothing became the life of the Thane of Cawdor like his leaving of it. The way Warner as Lear softly folds onto the body of Cordelia at the death will linger long in this theatregoer's memory.

Reviewer: Pete Wood