Saturday April 1st, BMW plant, Oxford
There was a Fool, of course, but this is not an April Fool: on sion_a's recommendation, addedentry and I persuaded bluedevi and juggzy to come with us and see Creation Theatre's production of King Lear in a car warehouse.
The main attraction for me at least was the venue, which certainly presented interesting challenges for staging and acting: a vast cavern of a room with a high ceiling, exposed pipes and wires all over the walls and ceiling, and no wings for actors to disappear into. In the first half, enclosures were curtained off with plastic sheeting to one side and to the rear of the 'stage' (a huge concrete block, its parallelogram shape cleverly designed to create an exaggerated illusion of perspective and depth); when the 'storm' broke, these fell away to allow Lear to be discovered behind the hindmost curtain, railing at the elements. The sheer distance from the audience (even without tricks of perspective) made him seem tiny, emphasising his powerlessness.
The removal of the 'offstage' enclosures effectively echoed the persistent motifs of stripping away that build up throughout the play: Lear sheds (voluntarily or otherwise) his daughters, his effects, his retinue, his clothes, and finally his sanity; Edgar discards clothes and semblance of sanity to play Tom o' Bedlam; Gloucester is stripped of his sons and his eyes. From this point on there could be no hiding-place for actors or characters; costume-changes and scene-changes alike had to happen in full view of the audience. Unfortunately, this left characters who 'died' on stage in a somewhat awkward position, and the problem was unsatisfactorily (for me) solved by the simple expedient of the actors slowly getting up and walking away in full view of the audience. On its own, this might have been unobtrusive, or perhaps stylised and solemn; but combined with the slow-motion falling (with 'dramatic' lighting changes) with which the deaths themselves were acted, it ended up feeling somewhat clumsy.
The thing that really let the production down, though, for me, was the incessant SHOUTING; it was as if, as soon as characters started going mad (and this happens fairly early on in Lear -- even, it could be argued, in the first scene...) the volume control was turned up to eleven ... and stayed there. In a normal venue this would have been merely a bit wearing; in a huge, echoing chamber it rendered vast portions of Lear's lines indecipherable, and I'm not sure how much I would have followed without prior knowledge of the play. Add to the shouting a frankly absurd amount of deranged capering (from Lear, Edgar, and the Fool) and high-heeled running (from appropriately power-suited Goneril and Regan), and the noise really started to drown the signal.
There were still some excellent moments: the opening scene in which Lear, in full military regalia, is wheeled onstage, standing upright on a trolley (a device which is effectively echoed later when, his wits and life ebbing away from him, he is pushed onstage in a wheelchair); the Reservoir Dogs-esque blinding of Gloucester (complete with Dean Martin backing track and the rather gruesome use of a stiletto-heeled shoe); Kent's torrent of insults to Oswald while the latter (played as bespectacled, prim and pedantic) tries to escape on a bicycle -- making the scene somewhat reminiscent of Cambridge road rage... But the completeness and coherence of individual moments only made the play as a whole seem more bitty, more awkward in its transitions.
A. C. Bradley argues, in his Shakespearean Tragedy, that the fault lies with the play itself; that it is impossible to stage well, that because Shakespeare's writing transcends drama the staging is, necessarily, something less than a coherent drama. This seems like the sort of backhanded compliment that a dramatist would hardly welcome, but may serve as an excuse for director and actors: over all, then, an interesting but flawed attempt to stage a notoriously difficult play.
And, of course, it could have been much worse. They could have used the happy ending.