Theatre – the good, the bad and the plain indifferent

Spoiler Alert – if you don’t already know what happens in King Lear and are going to the play – stop reading here. This is a stellar cast: Simon Russell Beale as Lear; Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin and Olivia Vinall as Regan, Goneril and Cordelia; Stephen Boxer, Sam Troughton and Tom Brooke as Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar; Adrian Scarborough and Stanley Townsend as The Fool and Kent and all under the direction of Sam Mendes. What could go wrong?

Well, a lot actually. It is heresy to say this but SRB swung between ranting and raving, often incoherently and finally in a fit of madness kills The Fool. This is not in the text, but as The Fool never reappears it is plausible; but for me the worst thing about today’s SRB, (and for years now) he has developed an actor’s tic, whenever he wants to show agitation, anxiety and plain madness he rubs his buttock and twitches the fingers of his right hand. He started this ages ago in a miraculous portrayal of Oswald Alving in a production of Ghosts by Ibsen. It worked then and he has since used it again and again, and for myself I cannot bear to watch. So frankly, I didn’t like his Lear.

Which is not to say that I don’t like SRB. His programmes about music, especially medieval music are matchless and when he sings…his Ariel which was also ages ago was quite lovely.

I didn’t like Anna Maxwell Martin’s Goneril either, in fact I kept wishing she had nothing else to say ever in the play, while at the same time knowing that her main speeches were still ahead. Another actor that I greatly admire in many other productions both on the stage and on TV/film.

So that has got my bug bears out of the way.

Gloucester, Kent, Edgar and The Fool were outstanding, apart from the copious amounts of blood, I suppose now we have such convincing fake blood, it is bound to get everywhere. But I once saw a car accident in which a man’s eye was damaged and the eyeball hung down his cheek, a never to be forgotten moment, and there was actually very little blood and in the production in which Paul Scofield played Lear forty or fifty years ago now, that Gloucester’s eye surgery replicated the car accident almost exactly!

The set and the staging were wonderful, very cinematic which of course now they will be, since this production of King Lear is being streamed live into cinemas around the world.

So on to another National Theatre production currently in the repertoire The Silver Tassie by Sean O’Casey. A timely production this since it is set in World War 1.

Although less well known that the trilogy of Dublin portrait-plays by Sean O’Casey and hugely controversial at the time, this play makes it quite clear that war is an un-pretty, unpleasant and unnecessary evil. Since Irish involvement with the British Army was highly contentious, since the Home Rule debacle was well on its way to the Easter Rising and many Irishmen thought their compatriots fighting FOR the British were traitors to the cause, a play set in Dublin in which the hero goes from football brilliance to a wheelchair was bound to cause a problem.

Not only that, when presented to the Abbey Theatre for consideration in 1928, the play script was rejected by WB Yeats who’s firm conviction was that the First World War was not a suitable topic for literature; consequently the first production was put on in London. People from the Abbey Theatre, who saw the London production realised they had made a mistake.

The London production on today, has a dynamic all of its own. Really excellent acting, a dramatic and awe-inspiring set, pace and pathos. O’Casey’s language is so rhythmic, powerful and Shakespearean in its imagery, almost.

The hero, Harry Heegan, played by Ronan Rafferty, is in a wheelchair, and an old friend who has been blinded in the conflict, Teddy Foran, played by Aidan Kelly, meet up again in hospital.

There is a scene at the end, we are at a celebratory ball after The Silver Tassie (this is a silver football trophy, won in the past by Harry Heegan in his prime) has been presented to the club; pretty much everything has gone badly all evening: the man who won a VC for saving Harry’s life has captivated his girl friend, Jessie Taite and Harry has been chasing after them all evening; and then when Harry finally admits defeat he and Teddy meet and Teddy puts his hand on Harry’s shoulder, and Harry grasps his arm, the dialogue goes like this:

Harry: I can see, but I cannot dance.
Teddy: I can dance, but I cannot see.
Harry: Would that I had the strength to do the things I see.
Terry: Would that I could see the things I’ve strength to do.
Harry: The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.
Terry: Blessed be the name of the Lord.

The play is described as a tragi-comedy and indeed it is marvellous funny in places, a dark melancholic humour, the second act set in the middle of the war zone is largely chanted throughout, the black humour of soldiers caustic and yet comradely; with the occasional bizarre vignette as a stretcher party carries through two wounded soldiers and ridiculous orders come down from battalion HQ.

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