thy name is shakespeare

Well, that was…intense. Ian McKellen was asked by the Chicester Festival Theatre, where he started his professional career many decades ago, if he would star in a play of his choosing, and he felt that he would like to “have a another crack at King Lear”. He asked for the smallest stage they had for intimacy with the audience and another a successfull run, they transferred it to the Duke of York theatre in London, which is one of the smallest in the West End, made smaller by removing a load of the seating. I caught an encore of the NT Live performance held at the Curzon Bloomsbury.

Ian McKellan is 79 and has basically said this is his last major Shakespeare role and I am not surprised that he’s giving it up. Over the course of three and a half hours, he gave a high-energy performance that involved a lot of shouting, raving half naked in pouring rain for half an hour, carrying another person across the stage, and generally thoroughly wearing me out and I was only watching him on a screen.

I don’t know where the abbatoir scenes are set historically but it was creepy af.

All the more surprising given that King Lear isn’t actually in a lot of the play and disappears for most of an Act. I’d never seen or read it and so I did not realise that there’s actually a whole load of subplots that I’d never absorbed in popular culture. King Lear is based on a legendary British King described by Geoffrey of Monmouth who divided his kingdom among two of his daughters and immediately regretted it when they failed to keep him in the style to which he was accustomed. Interestingly, Geoffrey’s story ends with Leir taking his kingdom back by force, but Shakespeare evidently thought this a dissatisfying ending and instead has pretty much everyone die horribly.

The Earl of Gloucester about to lose it to a creepy Regan

This was played up in Jonathan Munby staging – a subplot features the Earl of Gloucester, who is hosting Lear’s daughter Regan and the Duke of Cornwall when he is framed by his bastard son Edmund as a traitor, having already dispatched his legitimate brother Edgar in similar fashion (who then spend much of the play also covered in blood and dirt pretending to be mad so he isn’t murdered). Gloucester, having gone out in a storm to look for Lear after he has been turned away by both his daughters as a burden to them, then has his eyes gouged out. This scene is pretty gross and drawn out. It’s set in an abbatoir and Regan’s contribution is to put on the radio and writhe sadistically in delight, which was all quite off-putting. Gloucester is then turned into a pathetic figure and both he and Lear spend much of the next hour gloomily roaming round the stage covered in muck and sweat bewailing the state of affairs.

Two older gentlemen getting thoroughly dishevelled and messed up in the name of art.

It was a good play but the first half lasted about forty minutes longer than I wanted it to, and basically, it’s not Hamlet if we’re looking at Shakespear’s epicly long plays, and really there was far more shouting at the tops of people’s voices than I thought was necessary. A bit too high energy for me.

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We kick off our quest with a RSC live broadcast of Troilus and Cressida at Vue Wood Green. Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakepeare’s rarest performed plays, probably because it is rubbish. The plot is confusing, all moments of high drama are ultimately fudged, and the play just kind of stops suddenly and one of the secondary characters hurriedly delivers a gross-out speech to distract us all from that fact. Set seven years into the Siege of Troy, Troilus is Paris’ brother, and madly in love with a woman called Cressida, whose father has defected to the Greeks. Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, promised to ah, acquaint them. Meanwhile, the Greeks are all hanging around outside in the city in tents, arguing about what to do and not a little bit annoyed with Achilles, who has huffed off to his tent to hang out with Petroclus and is refusing to set a heroic example to the rest of the Greek army. Troilus and Cressida hook up, but the next day, a prisoner exchange means that Cressida is sent to the Greeks to be with her father, and she makes the best of it by getting with Diamene. Troilus is devastated. A bunch of people are killed offstage including Petroclus. Achilles kills Hector in grief.  The play ends. Hamlet it is not.

What the RSC did with it though, was pretty clever. Set in some dystopian steampunk universe, with high-octane acting, shirtless men and one of the best percussionists in the world providing the soundtrack, they did a pretty good job of entertaining me, which is ultimately really what these plays were written for.

He actually only got round to putting a shirt on for curtain call.

The RSC went all out on diversity, going with a gender balanced cast, making the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus explicit and getting a deaf actor to play Cassandra.

Charlotte Arrowsmith was pretty good at Cassandra – she signed most of her lines and had another actor vocalise the important bits. It has to be said that I didn’t in fact notice that she was Deaf until I saw the interval interviews, so well done on a great performance.

Charlotte Arrowsmith as Cassandra

The RSC to make the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus explicitly sexual and it really, really worked. They didn’t just shoehorn in some queers because it’s fashionable, it was written that way. Whatever Shakespeare’s original intentions were with that dialogue, he made a deliberate editorial choice to make it ambiguous enough in 1604 that you could interpret it as super gay and thank God I live in 2018 where that vision can be realised.

This is fine.

My laurel crown has to go to Oliver Ford Davies, however, who stole every scene he appeared in as Pandarus. Given that Troilus and Cressida are both boring characters, Pandarus’ creepiness and voyeurism was really funny and a highlight of the play, as well as delivering what was one of the funniest lines:

Amen. Whereupon I will show you a chamber with a
bed; which bed, because it shall not speak of your
pretty encounters, PRESS IT TO DEATH: away!”

The only thing I was disappointed by was the fact that we were only one of four attendees at this live broadcast. I have to blame this on Vue making it almost impossible to find and book the showing. It took me several goes, and having to shift from my phone to a desktop computer, to be able to buy a ticket. I hope they fix this, because I really appreciated being able to nip up to my local cinema to see a show being aired a hundred miles away, and I don’t want this cultural gift to be taken away from me because of poor ticket sales.

A good night out. Looking forward to the next one.

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