King Lear by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Miller
The Festival Theatre, Stratford,
August 20-November 6, 2002
"Jonathan Miller has elected to stage the tragedy on an empty stage. For dTcor, there is never more than a table and a chair, and by clearing away the trappings of traditional Shakespearean production (apart from Claire Mitchell's sumptuous 17th century costuming that pins the characters to specific moral qualities or stations in life), Miller is able to exercise a moral scrutiny of the text while observing Lear and other characters from their own points of view. The minimalist staging, aided immensely by Robert Thomson's painterly lighting, scores effective points. As Edmund, the malevolent solitarist, Maurice Godin, costumed in black, appears in semi-darkness, walking onto the stage in a shaft of light. The blinding of Gloucester is done with his chair with its back to the audience. When Regan (played as a graceful, cunning predator by Lucy Peacock) doesn't even take Cornwall's arm after he is mortally wounded in a struggle, the effect is especially dramatic in the dwindling light on the large stage.
However, there are serious limitations in the minimalist approach, for without any discernible physical difference between "inside" and "outside" in the settings, there is no palpable sense of a specific environment. Locales tend to become generalized to the point of abstraction. This is particularly noticeable in the heath and hovel scenes which are marked by a disturbingly casual blocking. The characters could be wandering or sheltering just anywhere. The famous Peter Brook-Paul Scofield Lear also had an abstract quality, but this sorted with its nihilism as refracted through Samuel Beckett. In Miller's production there is nothing beneath the social and historical orders to bind father to daughters, citizens and courtiers to king, individual to individual. Hence, the word "nothing", which is used as a leitmotif, has more serious reverberations than Lear could ever had imagined.
The largely empty acting space¨a "nothing" in itself¨enables Plummer to set his own scale of performance. He begins extremely well, sharing a private joke offstage with his Fool (Barry MacGregor makes a detached clairvoyant) who leads him on-stage at the opening and who remains in the scene where he offers consolation to Cordelia. Plummer's Lear forgets the name of Burgundy and has to be prompted by Kent, who is superbly played by Benedict Campbell. His memory lapses are offset by an exercise of hard authority. His eyes fix approvingly on Cordelia who is played by Sarah McVie as a plainly outspoken daughter who is firm of physique. She clearly understands "th'oily art" of sycophancy but will not use it, thereby provoking her father's first explosion. Plummer's storming at Goneril (whom Domini Blythe plays regally with accents on mockery and lust) and Regan (who is portrayed with graceful cunning by Lucy Peacock) is magnificently achieved, culminating in a vow to regain the shape of what he has cast away by dividing up his kingdom. Plummer makes the audience shake with excitement and tremble with the expectation of Lear's heartbreak as he charts Lear's mental breakdown vividly in its mixture of rage strangled by inarticulateness, a struggling self-pity, and a touching admission of mental distemper and vulnerability.
Possibly in the debt of Jan Kott's reading of the play, the production shows how the world of tragedy and that of the grotesque have a similar structure and pose the same fundamental questions. The clown or clownish wit becomes the central figure repeatedly. Edgar's nakedness and feigned madness are a pantomime brought to a climax in the Dover scene with his blinded father. The empty stage is appropriate to the mime of Gloucester's casting himself off an imagined cliff, for the anti-illusionism is correlated to a blind man's illusion.
Everything, however, returns to Lear, and it is Plummer's performance rather than Lear himself that breaks apart. Plummer's acting becomes an exercise in buffoonery that reflects Lear's mad gaiety at the loss of wit, but, alas, this clowning has an all-too-knowing air. When he scratches his rear on "Aye, every inch a king!" the madness is comic rather than touching, and though he isolates or underlines the growing wisdom of Lear, the comic tone predominates.
The flurry of melodramatic incident exacerbates Plummer's difficulty, as does his Cordelia who gives him nothing in their reconciliation scene. He does not help himself later in Act Five when he drags here body as if it were a sack of potatoes. He feebly nudges her cheeks with his knuckles¨the very knuckles that had pounded out his rage or playfully pummeled his Fool¨but all dignity has already gone from the scene, and his five "Never's" dwindle into a whispered submission. This is a Lear filled with paradox, but one that may expand some minds without necessarily touching hearts.
Keith Garebian's new book is The Making of 'Guys and Dolls'.