9 March, 2009Issue 8.7EuropeThe ArtsTheatre

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Lear and Othello

Andrew Hammond

learKing Lear
The Young Vic
Directed by Rupert Goold
Running until 28 March 2009

Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Kathryn Hunter
On tour until 7 March 2009

King Lear and Othello both begin with a daughter’s disobedience and end with a parade of death. Together, one onstage at the Young Vic and the other just finishing a Royal Shakespeare Company tour, they remind us of Shakespeare’s enduring ability to deliver an audience into a shocked state of despair.

The Headlong Theatre’s production of King Lear at the Young Vic, directed by Rupert Goold, is a solid, if flawed staging of the tragedy. Goold’s directorial decisions are an attempt to deliver a grotesque, even campy Lear. The most flagrant example is Cordelia’s bizarre return to England, dressed in a tennis outfit, amid buzzing helicopters and gasmask-wearing soldiers. The Princess herself brandishes a semi-automatic behind a bouquet of daisies, sending us off to intermission in a storm of gunfire.

The blinding of Gloucester borders on torture porn. Cornwall and Regan are visibly aroused by the act. Regan does not remove Gloucester’s eye with her fingers, but with her teeth, spitting the severed orb out for all to see. We are more disgusted with Regan and Cornwall than we are despairing for Gloucester.

Goold’s production also features a continuous rain shower falling on Lear as he is expelled from Regan’s castle. The rain is a nice effect, but it is diminished by a distracting interpretative song and dance by the rest of the cast as Lear, Kent and the fool battle the storm. You’ve never seen such a crowded heath.

Perhaps Goold is trying to chart a new course for productions of the tragedy. There is no doubt that this show stands in stark contrast to the high drama that most Lear stagings follow. In a sense, Goold emphasises the theatricality of the pain induced in the performance—whether that is the stylised blinding of Gloucester, the song and dance of banishment or the brotherly brawl between Edmund and Edgar that begins with toy swords and ends with an affectionate, albeit murderous embrace. But this interpretation only serves to distract us from the bleak vision of the play.

In spite of the directorial decisions, Pete Postlethwaite and the cast achieve the pathos the text demands. Postlethwaite, as the title character, is better at playing Lear as madman than Lear as King, and, as such, improves as the hours pass. The actor, nearly two decades younger than the King he is portraying, is convincingly feeble, to the point that we get no glimpse of the man who inspired such loyalty in Kent and such love in Cordelia. Once Lear is abandoned by his daughters and thrown out into the storm, however, Postlethwaite breathes a sympathetic, sometimes humorous portrayal into the man.

The Fool, played by Forbes Masson, is the King’s aggressive partisan, giving him an edge not found in most productions. Tobias Menzies is a stirring Edgar, whose decision to disguise himself as an insane beggar is at first one of necessity but becomes a way to hide his horror at seeing his father beaten and blinded.

One cannot be as kind to Jonjo O’Neill who plays Edgar’s brother, Edmund. This Edmund seems more interested in eliciting laughs than in scheming against the rest of the characters. His performance leaves the production without the Iago-like villain that the text demands. After all, this is the man who betrays his brother to banishment, his father to torture, and sends Lear and Cordelia to their deaths.

The most interesting interpretation is that of Goneril, Lear’s eldest daughter. In the opening scene, Goneril seems as pained as Cordelia in professing her love to her father. What’s more, she’s pregnant. Very pregnant. She gives birth just before Lear enters the heath. The decision to depict Goneril with child might have served simply to make Lear’s famous curse of barrenness even more horrifying, but it also puts another character onstage.

The child in swaddling clothes is a fixture through the rest of the production, its cry the last thing the audience hears from Lear’s world. The baby’s scream is a coda to the awkward rhyming couplet that ends the play. Depending on the version of the text, either Edgar or Albany declares that those who remain must speak as they feel and not as they ought to say. The child’s cry of pain is the articulated emotion—a more fitting statement than the words that finish the play.

The play ends with those who survive, amid the bodies of the rest of the cast, huddled together just as Lear and his ragged friends huddled earlier in the hovel. Cordelia lies lifeless in Lear’s dead arms. Goneril’s newly-born and now motherless child cries out as the lights fade to black. Those who are left are merely voices watering a stony place.

While the Lear production’s static set evokes the Beckett-like barrenness of human existence, the RSC’s touring production of Othello is a stormy one. You never forget how close you are to the sea. Othello’s squall-filled voyage from Venice to Cyprus is represented with typical seafaring theatrics. Atypically, Iago, played by Michael Gould, is the person who stands above the storm, directing the tempest. However, in this production, he does not need the powers of Prospero to stir up a squall. It rages in spite of his machinations.

Any production of Othello must give the audience one or even several answers as to why Othello believes Iago that Desdemona is unfaithful. Does Othello believe Iago’s slanders because Othello is paranoid? Too trusting? Or is Iago just that good at being bad? Kathryn Hunter’s production offers an alternative explanation—that in a society as misogynistic as Venice, men believe it when other men tell them that their wives are whores.

Iago’s slandering of Desdemona and Othello’s credulity occurs in an ocean of prejudice. Having quickly defeated the Turks in Cyprus, Othello’s troops pass the time with grotesque entertainment. The clown, played by RSC stalwart Miltos Yerolemou, appears in blackface, using a wedding-gowned, life-sized doll of Desdemona to give birth—to the horror of his soldier audience—to a black child. Othello and Desdemona, played by Patrice Naiambana and Natalia Tena, happen upon this repugnant performance and must stomach it. Hunter’s production seems to suggest that the constant barrage of racism thrown at Othello, both from the nobles in Venice and his soldiers in Cyprus, make him more suspicious of any attempt to dishonour him.

The vile vaudeville returns later in the play with a rendition of the Al Jolson standard “You Made Me Love You”, causing the one black soldier in the chorus to leave in disgust. Iago follows this scene with a soliloquy relating his evil plans, while he manhandles and smears with pitch the very doll the clown used to portray Desdemona. The connection between Iago’s crime and the soldiers’ hate is clear.

Iago’s case is thin, but Othello is all too willing to believe it. Naiambana’s Othello is an exceedingly violent one. He throws furniture, shoves soldiers and manages to put nearly every major character into a chokehold with his whip at some point in the production. Before he murders his wife, Othello berates her, slaps her and tortures her in front of his fellow soldiers. As her husband, he is her self-appointed judge and executioner. Even after he realizes that Desdemona was nothing but true to him, Othello cannot admit the nature of his crime. Asked what should be said of him, Othello responds, “An honourable murderer, if you will/ For nought I did in hate, but all in honour.”

The mistrust of wives, the vilification of women and the hatred of blacks are Iago’s greatest allies. Othello’s crime is not solely his own, nor is it Iago’s. In this production, the crime is symptomatic of a world that treats women and blacks as something less than human—a world not unlike our own.

Where the Young Vic’s Lear ends with a child’s cry, the RSC’s Othello concludes with Iago’s cackle. But in both productions, our thoughts are not with the living, but those who lie lifeless on the stage. Even an audience as desensitised to the representation of violence as today’s cannot help but be horrified at the destruction.

We are like Edgar who, having just proclaimed his ability to brave all the winds of the world, watches as his own father stumbles on stage, the old man’s eyes ripped from his face, blinded and bleeding, hoping to find a cliff from which to jump. We ask as Lear did: “Is man no more than this?” After all that carnage, we are left with a child’s cry and a madman’s laugh—both images of that horror.

Andrew Hammond is reading for an MPhil in Comparative Social Policy at St John’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

Photograph of Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear © Stephen Vaughan