Adrian Noble has written a valuable book: How to Do Shakespeare. In it, the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company teaches a master class on the subject. He sums up the objective behind his lucid prose when he says Shakespeare’s words “should engage with the imagination of the audience and not just be consumed by them as a commodity.” In King Lear at the Old Globe, Noble puts his teachings into practice, with impressive results.
Shakespeare’s characters don’t think, pause, and then speak. Words and thoughts are one; they “rub together,” as if “coined” on the spot. Thus when a character speaks, the bow’s already drawn back: the idea/word is an unleashed arrow.
This is especially true of Lear. Who knows why he chose to break up the kingdom King Arthur fought so hard to unify 200 years earlier? Lear acts with the godlike authority of a pharaoh. He speaks gold, he’s sure. Then he admits to a “darker purpose,” which suggests some vague, preconceived notion, and things — families, castles, nations, nature — fall apart. Lear’s foolish hubris changes the nature of speech. Where “degree” once governed the universe, and everything had a fixed place, words included, now disorder rules: all is up for grabs, and speech becomes improvisational, off the top of one’s head.
Noble’s cast reflects the change in line after line. When Goneril (Emily Swallow) realizes she could have more than a third of the kingdom, she speaks as she thinks, ad-libbing her alleged love; same with Regan (Aubrey Saverino). And Jonno Roberts’s excellent Edmund (as funny as he is vile) shares his schemes with the audience unedited, which, you sense, he wouldn’t dare before Lear unfurled the map of Britain.
Those who still follow the King, and the old order he represents, suffer. Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, Gloucester become tormented for their fidelity. And Lear becomes a Job without divine intervention. He begins by having it all but then spirals, downward and inward, divested of every trapping, every “accommodation.” He goes beyond Job, discovering time and again that “the worst” is only a harbinger of even worse to come. In the end, his soul seared, he crumples, divested, finally, of his mortality.
Lear’s a mighty and tragic figure. But when he dies, amid the play’s cathartic ramifications, one can’t help muttering, “finally.” Like Oedipus, Lear’s demise is a long-belated blessing.
The director has set the play in semi-neutral territory. Deirdre Clancy’s costumes begin upscale, in the 18th Century, and then come forward, fanning out as they do. Ralph Funicello’s spare set includes dark, castle-high walls and autumn leaves covering the floor (swept away, in the wintry second act). A wooden platform comes down center stage. It serves as a royal walkway, a hovel, one of Dover’s white cliffs, and “this great stage of fools.” Shaun Davey’s original music handles the entrances well but is absolutely unnecessary when Lear and Cordelia reunite. At this point the audience doesn’t need music to tell them how to feel!
Unlike more tasteful productions of Lear, Noble doesn’t couch the suffering behind an arras. Regan, allegedly the kinder of the two daughters, grabs Cordelia’s hair (but why does the king of France just stand there and let it happen?). When he attempts suicide, blind Gloucester doesn’t step from one part of the floor to another: he drops three feet, enough to inspire trepidation for a blindfolded Charles Janasz, who makes the “leap.” The director sets Gloucester’s blinding downstage, the dripping blood and “vile jelly” ocular proof of the deed. In his book, Noble justifies his choices: “The English tradition of tragedy is fairly full-blooded…. In the Greek Theatre, bloodshed and murder took place offstage…. In Shakespeare, we tend to see it all.”
I have never heard the Lear story told better. Like Coriolanus, whose “heart’s his mouth,” the cast turns speech into action. Bruce Turk’s nimble Fool (who dies from an accident), Catherine Gowl’s firm Cordelia (more human and less saintly than most depictions), and especially Jay Whittaker’s multivoiced Edgar play each moment as if brand new, with no idea what’ll come next.
“Things get so tough,” someone once summarized the play, “that the monarch flips his skimmer.” Robert Foxworth’s Lear begins puffed up and regal and ends at least 20 years older, like a dying candle extinguished by its wax. Foxworth traces the King’s downfall with a resonant (if at times too speedy) voice. His always-competent performance wavers nicely between madness and dotage.
What’s missing is size. During the famous storm scene, where Lear calls down the apocalypse (“thou, all-shaking thunder/ Strike flat the thick rotundity o’the world, Crack nature’s moulds…”), the special effects often drown out his words. Snow flurries, flecked with lightning, upstage them as well. The scene’s a genuine eye-catcher: howling in a winter wonderland. But its meaning — he wants the storm to kill us all — gets lost. Elsewhere, Foxworth could tweak Lear’s narcissism and suggest that it masks a profound instability at his core.
Adrian Noble is the new artistic director of the Old Globe’s summer Shakespeare Festival. Judging from his Lear alone, Noble was an excellent choice. May he continue his master class in San Diego for a long time to come. ■
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Adrian Noble; cast: Robert Foxworth, Emily Swallow, Aubrey Saverino, Catherine Gowl, Donald Carrier, Michael Stewart Allen, Ben Diskant, Christian Durso, Charles Janasz, Jay Whittaker, Jonno Roberts, Joseph Marcell, Bruce Turk, Andrew Dahl; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Deirdre Clancy; lighting, Alan Burrett; sound, Christopher R. Walker; original music, Shaun Davey
Playing through September 23. Runs in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew and The Madness of George III. 619-234-5623