Thursday, 26 March 2009

And my poor fool is hanged

Wednesday used to be an impossible night for TV viewing, but last night there was an embarrassment of riches in a sparse week. I had planned to watch Being Erica and the second-to-last episode of the doomed American version of Life on Mars, but the Resident Fan Boy reminded me that Ian McKellen's King Lear was on PBS.

Oh my goodness. This King Lear has to be one of the clearest and accessible productions I've ever seen. From the opening moments, the characters emerge in all their complexity. McKellen's Lear is a very old man, one used to getting his way and one still capable of forcing everyone into a deep terrified curtsey if he so much as raises his voice. The eldest daughter Goneril (Frances Barber) comes across as the voice of sweet reason; the middle sister Regan (Monica Dolan) clutches a wine goblet at every opportunity and follows Goneril's lead, while kid sister Cordelia (Romola Garai) makes the fateful decision not to flatter her father. As the events spin out inexorably into death and disaster, one wishes she had. Perhaps then, her aged arrogant father would not be systematically stripped of all his power and left to the whim of her sisters, who in this production, start out from put-upon and annoyed before suddenly toppling over into out-and-out cruelty.

There seems to be a Doctor Who theme over at the Royal Shakespeare Company these days. One of Lear's few remaining supporters is his fool, played by Sylvester McCoy, who manages to slip his trademark spoon-playing into his routine. This is a frightened and powerless servant full of affection for the foolish king, but all too aware of the way the wind blows. (And it does, with a heigh-ho.)

In a startling re-staging and arranging, the sort of stuff for which the RSC is famous, Lear's ambiguous line near the end, "And my poor fool is hanged" is made unmistakable at the end of Act III. Usually, the fool just vanishes, but Gloucester, deliberately disobeying the two elder daughters' orders to leave Lear to the elements, returns once again to help the king flee, and fool is still in the stable when Gloucester is surrounded by grinning Cossack types. A couple of them haul Gloucester off to face his blinding (which I can never face, I always change the channel or leave the auditorium -- I do, really). The remainder improvise a gallows and brutally hang the poor fool who speaks "a prophecy ere I go", a speech that normally takes place at the end of the earlier heath scene: ". . .Then comes the time, who lives to see't/ That going shall be us'd with feet." It is upsetting enough to see the gentle jester strangled, but see Sylvester McCoy used thus is doubly so.

Our PBS transmission concluded with a wonderful interview with Sir Ian, looking remarkably youthful after his ravaged Lear. I hope the rumoured filming of David Tennant's Hamlet is of similar quality.

Last summer, talent writer and Lear virgin Marie Phillips wrote in her blog about seeing King Lear for the very first time and being bamboozled. Marie, if the King Lear currently languishing on your PVR is McKellen's and Trevor Nunn's RSC version, for pity's sake, watch it. This is a crystal-clear Lear.


Marie said...

I believe it is the very same. Thanks for the tip.

Jane Henry said...

Fab review, Persephone. I haven't seen this version of Lear, having not twigged then that the best way to get tickets to the RSC is to become a member. Sounds like a must have DVD.

Have you ever seen his Macbeth with Judi Dench? I remember seeing it at school, and being blown away. Hilariously now, looking back, we had no idea at all he was gay. Those love scenes with Dame J are pretty damned concvincing!

That was the first time I saw Ian McKellern, have loved him in everything since, including his Richard III, which is incredible.

Pyzahn said...

You passed on "Lost" for King Lear? I love my PBS, but...

I read a review of a new PBS series coming on that said it was smashing. Now I'm not sure of the title....Dorsitt? Dorvet?

Persephone said...

Sorry, not a fan of "Lost", Pyzahn. You're thinking of Little Dorritt (by Charles Dickens). The BBC dramatization (which will be telecast by PBS in the States) just finished telecasting up here in Canada last week. I didn't find it smashing, but maybe that's just me. Impressive cast, for the most part...

bonnie-ann black said...

i just watched that King Lear production the other night as well. i've seen three or four productions of Lear and this one was definitely one of the best.

the moving of the Fool's prophecy was quite a good idea and totally in keeping with the text in the Quarto, as opposed to the Folio. i have both in my Oxford Shakespeare set and tried to follow the dialogue with the book, but gave up after Act I. it was obviously a combination of the two versions of the play.

i love Sylvester McCoy and Ian McKellan and am also a fan of William Gaunt -- a marvelous actor one doesn't see enough of. (and who also appeared in an episode of Doctor Who many years ago.)

absolutely the most accessible Lear i've seen. i was in London in february and Lear was being done with Pete Postelthwaite as Lear. unfortunately, we couldn't get tickets (or to Derek Jacobi's Twelfth Night) but i heard through the news that it was one of the goriest and that someone actually *fainted* during the eye gouging scene!