There are a lot of intriguing and thought-provoking examples of deft re-interpretation which would grace any orthodox production of the play; but as a whole this Queen Lear remains an interesting experiment rather than a convincing formula which begs to be repeated.
A plain red back-drop, subdued lighting, a dangling chandelier (more about this below!), and a full-size grand piano where Cordelia sits dreamily playing a piece that might be Satie…this is the opening tableau of Phil Willmott’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most startling and original play. It is an innocuous enough start for a production that aims to find many new pathways over this Mt Everest within Shakespeare’s output.
There’s no major objections to changing the gender of the ruler in Lear, but after seeing this production it is not clear that there are any transformative advantages either. Of course there were plenty of women rulers in early modern Europe, not least Elizabeth I herself; so there is nothing anachronistic about focusing on the political challenges facing an aged queen.
Indeed we can experiment here in a way that Shakespeare could not: he got into enough trouble putting on Richard II at the time of Essex’s rebellion, and even under James I it is hard to see how he could ever have confronted this particular issue in the London theatre of his day. However, director Phil Wilmott chooses to make Queen Lear a widowed consort, not a queen regnant in her own right, and that arguably weakens the scenario of a woman exercising some of the key patriarchal powers in a hierarchical society.
There are some real gains in the change, some passages in the text that you are required to reconsider when the genders are changed. The conflict between a mother and a daughter is inherently different from that of a father and daughter. The initial breach with Cordelia seems less plausible, but the raucously visceral rows with Goneril and Regan acquire an added intensity when it is a mother’s rejection that is in question.
The speeches in which Lear curses Goneril with infertility are all the more shocking when delivered by a woman. And at the other end of the emotional scale Lear’s recognition of her neglect of the poor and needy achieves a touching resonance in this performance as does the scene with Gloucester on Dover Cliff, which has a warmth and tenderness here often lacking in traditional productions influenced by the austerities of Beckett and Jan Kott.
That said, there are real losses too. There are irreducibly male aspects to Lear’s personality which are hard for a woman to depict – the amity with ‘the knights debosh’d and bold’, the paternal bond with the Fool, and the many military moments of the play resonate oddly when played this way.
But the greatest loss is the decision to cut the character of Kent altogether from the action. One can see why this is done, because it represents one of the most finely achieved examples of male friendship and loyalty in the Shakespearean corpus, but can we really say we have captured the full richness of the play by axing one of the key relationships? Willmott attempts to compensate by building up the scenes between Gloucester and Lear and Gloucester and Edgar, but this is unarguably too great a sacrifice. The text can take the changes easily enough, but the shape and character of the drama cannot.
Any production of this play really has to negotiate two separate transitions if it is to succeed. Until the middle of the second act it is primarily a political play, to be played as if in the manner of the ‘histories’, albeit with an intensity, knottiness and unsettlingly corrupt of imagery that hints at something darker.
Then in the extraordinary Act II Scene iv, where Lear’s mind begins to give way, the structures of politics collapse and an unprecedented savagery of elemental violence opens up, the play moves to a new level of verbal invention and abstraction that rushes through to the elevated surreal heights of Dover Cliff in one unique creative arc. We have to feel that sudden take off into a new dimension of writing and imagination, before, in the final scenes, there is a fusion between the conventional apparatus of battle, tourney and political negotiation and this new transcendence of insight.
This is a huge set of demands on any production, and it is rare for any one director or interpretation to sustain those demands at all the key points. Willmott’s version deserves credit for the several scenes in which it did fully embody what the play contains. Many of these moments were in episodes that often do not receive much attention in traditional productions: the rivalry of France and Burgundy in the opening scene was delightfully sketched out, the laying of false trails against Edgar had a plausibility and tension it often lacks, the slow-burn anger of Lear against her daughters was very well modulated, and it was a genuine coup to present Lear in the storm scenes as a bag-lady with a shopping trolley of debris.
Unfortunately a lot of the support players were quite weak either throughout or at intervals in their performances. The three daughters were well distinguished from each other, but with the exception of Rosamund Hine’s Goneril did little with the wonderful lines entrusted to them. Hannah Kerin’s Cordelia caught the sweetness but not the toughness of the role, and Elizabeth Appleby, sounding rather like Jennifer Saunders at times, did not find the brittle, alarming, hysterical instability at the heart of Regan. Daniel Slade’s Fool found interesting, tart ways of delivering his lines and had real presence in the role, but lacked the kind of affectionate physical attachment to Lear that is essential here – however this may be an impossible ask in this production.
Among the Gloucester family the performances were, again, of varied quality. Ashley Russell grew in stature and authority as he lost ducal status, and Nicholas Limm offered a much more coherent and measured rendering of Edgar that is usual, despite a tiresome heroin-injecting device to set him up to play ‘poor Tom’. Unfortunately Ben Kerfoot was not to the Machiavellian pitch of Edmund’s crucial role as amoral ringmaster: this performance captured the thuggish soldier but not the pitch-perfect schemer, and without an Edmund of real presence and menace this play is unbalanced.
And so to the central performance….Ursula Mohan brings many strengths to her characterisation. She encapsulates the capricious, skittish widow of the opening scenes well despite some textual insecurity. This is Lear sounding like the late Beryl Reid. She also finds a genuine viciousness in her dealings with Regan and Goneril that helps to understand how Lear could have mothered such ‘pelican daughters.’ Momentum flagged a bit in the scenes on the heath, but she rose to the final peroration with a fine command of pace and sonority of language. Less clear however was how the other characters should interact with a female sovereign and parent.
Staging revolves around a large grand piano which is used imaginatively both as an instrument and as stage furniture. For whatever reason there is also an ornamental chandelier that chatters and shakes at moments of high tension: this would be more at home in a farce called Carry on Lear than in Shakespeare’s play. That blemish apart there are a lot of intriguing and thought-provoking examples of deft re-interpretation which would grace any orthodox production of the play; but as a whole it remains an interesting experiment rather than a convincing formula which begs to be repeated.