October 22nd 2019
King Lear; a play reading
Probably first performed in 1606, King Lear has a cast of twenty, plus servants, knights, officers, messengers, soldiers and attendants. On average it runs for over three hours plus intermission. On Tuesday, our judiciously cut version ran for two hours (including intermission) and with a cast of nine.
Some people were cast as two characters: Edgar and Cornwall and Cordelia with the Fool. The latter, making both practical and artistic sense, may be what Shakespeare intended. The Fool is not present in ActI Scene1: Lear is the only fool here. He then disappears after Act III Scene 6 leaving Cordelia to come into her own in the scenes set in France where the King himself had appeared as a variety of other characters.
I learnt that, in a meeting some time ago, when the functions of these peripheral characters - doctors, messengers, scriveners, old men, ambassadors etc. - was touched upon. In the main – as in Lear - they are plot devices, used to move the narrative along. E. M. Forster would have called them ‘flat characters’. At most they have a few lines; they are often there, as T.S. Eliot observed: ‘To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince;’
However it would be fun to probe deeper into the ‘lives’ of these ‘attendant lords’ and commoners. They would all have stories to tell, points of view worth examining. Stoppard did it for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There must be other candidates in the canon waiting for such a treatment.
Despite all the cutting and so on, Anthony’s version (linking omitted scenes with helpful narration) made a satisfying whole which I felt held the audience very successfully. We had lost the most melodramatic scenes (no eye-gouging or nakedness thank goodness) but there was enough there to elicit pity for the waste Lear brought on himself and the other victims of his ‘blindness’. One member of the audience said she thought the death scene with Cordelia and Lear was cathartic. I found the Dover cliff scene very moving.
The baddies are always of course much more fun. Goneril and Regan gave a satisfying reading of those scheming women and Edmund raised laughs, plotting with relish the downfall of his enemies. I thought it interesting that Shakespeare gives him the death-bed chance (too late, of course; the play’s a tragedy) to revoke Lear and Cordelia’s death warrant. The character is reminiscent of both Richard III and Iago. Richard’s conscience is revealed in his nightmares; Iago goes to his death defiantly unrepentant.
It was a very good evening and gave us all a chance to revisit the play before next meeting’s lecture: King Lear: the Last Tragedy (Les Wilkinson).
Review by Julia Pirie