Year of Shakespeare: King Lear at the Almeida

  • Share on Tumblr

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


King Lear, directed by Michael Attenborough for the Almeida Theatre, 22 September 2012

By Sonia Massia, King’s College London

Having sat through the first few minutes of Attenborough’s production of King Lear at the Almeida, I found myself thinking just how different it looked and sounded from the production of the same play staged by the Belarus Free Theatre at The Globe Theatre a few months earlier. Following the guidelines issued by the Globe to Globe Festival organizers, the Belarusians used only simple props and no setting, and managed to create a stunning piece of physical theatre. Attenborough’s cast, which included Jonathan Pryce in the lead role, was instead constantly surrounded by the sturdy walls of a medieval castle, which remained visible even during the long outdoor scenes in the second half of the play. The soundscapes in these two productions were also very different. The distancing effect of the translation into Belarusian, along with the absence of recorded music or sound effects, turned King Lear into a raw but intense theatrical experience, which seemed perfectly suited to the acting space offered by an open-air amphitheatre like The Globe. The intimate indoor space shared by actors and audience at the Almeida was instead filled by sophisticated light and sound effects and by the beautifully calibrated voices of the cast, who spoke the familiar English text of Shakespeare’s play precisely, clearly, almost reverentially, as an act of worship or collective remembrance of the common values associated with Lear’s journey of emotional discovery. Even more obviously, while the Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear was thoroughly embedded in the context of an international festival, nothing at the Almeida or in the programme signaled that this King Lear had also been advertised as one of the many offerings under the auspices of the World Shakespeare Festival. Directed by the Almeida’s own artistic director since 2002, this Lear was an in-house production through and through.

And yet, as Attenborough’s production progressed, I started to notice interesting similarities with the Belarusian King Lear. The set, for example, was as substantial and imposing as one would expect it to be in a production where the fictive world of the play is realistically evoked. The sturdy brick walls curving around the small stage at the Almeida clearly suggested the gloomy courtyard of a medieval castle. However, they also matched the structure, colour and texture of the theatre’s back walls, thus blurring the distinction between the dramatic fiction and the theatrical trappings underpinning it, as it often happens in performance spaces, like The Globe Theatre, where the stage and the theatre are visible at all times. Even more crucially, it soon became apparent that Pryce’s take on Lear was very similar to Aleh Sidorchik’s portrayal of the king as a violent and abusive autocrat in the Belarusian production. Though seemingly doting and benign, Lear suddenly and unexpectedly kissed Regan (Jenny Jules) on the mouth, after her profession of unconditional filial devotion during the love test at the beginning of the play. The uniformly white audience, who had sat in rapt admiration up to this point, seemed to shudder and to hold their breath in quietly outraged disbelief. Was this kiss a mere slip from the polished, self-confident register that this production had set from the start? Other equally startling details in the stage action that followed suggested otherwise. When, for example, Goneril (Zoe Waites) complained that the loutish behaviour of Lear’s knights made her house seem ‘more like a tavern or a brothel / Than a grac’d palace’, her aggravation seemed justified by the fact that, on entering the stage as if coming straight back from hunting, two of Lear’s knights hanged a dead deer from one of the arched doorways in the castle walls and then proceeded to bleed it, while others harassed one of her female servants. Pryce’s Lear, instantly enraged by his daughter’s suggestion that he should reduce the number of knights in his retinue, first cursed Goneril in what seemed like a particularly vicious and prolonged verbal attack, and then forced a violent kiss on her lips before pushing her away as he stormed off stage. Goneril tried to enlist her husband’s support by delivering her line ‘Do you mark that?’ as a plea, but a visibly older Albany (Richard Hope) refused to acknowledge her as a victim and replied coldly and dispassionately ‘I cannot be so partial, Goneril’. Goneril’s response to Albany’s discovery of her illicit liaison with Edmund in the final scene of the play – ‘the laws are mine, not thine; / Who can arraign me for’t?’ – thus acquired new resonance.

While Attenborough’s portrayal of Goneril and Regan as the victims of a sexually abusive father was consistent and effective throughout, the tension that this reading created in the second half of the play, when Lear normally becomes more sympathetic, seemed to remain ultimately unresolved. If Pryce’s Lear had undoubtedly gained fresh insight and self-awareness by the time he reached Dover, the emphasis that Pryce placed on Lear’s misogyny as he bantered with Gloucester on the heath showed that his character was still affected by the contempt that generally underlies sexual abuse. Pryce linked the smell of mortality, which he graphically tried to wipe off his fingers, to the female sexual genitals, ‘the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding’, which he had also obscenely mimed a couple of lines earlier. This production’s commitment to exploring the roots of Lear’s despotism as a father more than as a king was interestingly foregrounded in the programme: three headings, ‘truth’, ‘gender’, and ‘nature’, introduced a selection of quotations from the play, but only ‘gender’ was glossed by an explanatory note, where the play was described as ‘dominated by power-oriented masculinity’. Though a far cry from Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, this production offered a similarly radical re-reading of Lear’s character, which turned out to be uncannily similar to the sexually abusive Lear portrayed by Aleh Sidorchik in the Belarusian production. However, unlike the latter, where the loss of Shakespeare’s language allowed the company to refocus the play on issues that resonated with their own experience of homelessness at the hands of a despotic regime, Pryce’s Lear struggled to secure the audience’s sympathy as he approached the tragic ending precisely because this production had not presented itself as an overt adaptation and had therefore at least partly failed to manage the audience’s expectations as to what type of production they were going to see.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Author:Sonia Massai

Sonia is Reader in Shakespeare Studies at King's College London. She has published widely on global Shakespeare, including World-Wide Shakespeares (Routledge 2005) and, most recently, an article on Shakespeare in Italy, published in the Guardian as part of the series on 'Shakespeare is ...' ( Sonia is currently working on a book on Intercultural Shakespeare.
  • Saffron Walkling

    My co-writers and I are also currently drafting and re-drafting our reflections on audience during the WSF. With regards to race, and concerns about the sector failing to attract ethnically diverse audiences, we have to be careful that we don’t inadvertantly deny the possibility of diversity within a particular audience and, in effect, force people to ‘pass’ because, in a dimly lit auditorium, they don’t easily present to us, the writers, as non-white. The way we’ve dealt with this is to qualify our statements, as Sonia has in her comments (for those who read comments). Anyone who has heard Sonia talk knows that she is not prejudiced, in fact is passionately the opposite and would never intentionally cast aspersions on the reactions of ANY group of people based simply on their colour, class, nationality, sexual orientation or gender. Likewise, the host Year of Shakespeare blog has provided a nuanced platform to challenge some of the less-informed responses to international Shakespeares (see Prescott’s review of Globe to Globe’s ‘Macbeth’). As to the taboo topic of incest, statistically there were likely to have been survivors of abuse in the audience and reading this blog. Grant’s comment evidences that some of the audience/readers were upset by the incest (because it is upsetting) but NOT by its representation on stage. He seems to have felt the production powerfully moving. How I wish I had seen it, even if it sounds a little too close to home. Debate around incestuous abuse can provoke extreme responses, particularly in those who have been affected in some way, but I think that in all stratas of society we are largely moving away from a position of ‘see no evil’. I agree with what you are saying, Erin, about not silencing discussion and I find Sonia and her scholarship inspirational. However, the best thing about blogs (as opposed to something that is already in paper print) is that if there is anything in a post which is unintentionally ambivalent, or ‘-ist’ in anyway, it’s only an ‘edit’ away from being made less ambivalent/-ist. Readers of both my blogs occassionally ask me to clarify what I intended and I love that I can interact with that, sometimes reworking my posts because they’ve made me think about something.
    Keep up the fantastic blog and the important debates in the comment sections.

  • Erin

    Thanks Sonia for your very interesting review. I think questions relating to audience demographics (age, race, socioeconomics) and social inclusiveness have been of particular concern during the World Shakespeare Festival and the larger Cultural Olympiad – it’s no secret that diversity and widening access is a huge focal point of publically funded arts programming. The Globe has made a big point of advertising that a large number of its Globe to Globe tickets were sold to audience members who had never been to the Globe before, and anecdotally a lot of reviewers have mentioned that they found G2G audiences were more diverse than typical Shakespeare audiences, so I find your point relevant. Of course, there is always a question about what a ‘typical’ audience is, or how one identifies as part of a particular demographic group, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start debating these thorny issues in the first place. Thank you for raising them!

  • Saffron Walkling

    This sounds like a great production, although I don’t think anything can beat the Globe to Globe Belarus Lear for me. And an interesting discussion in the comments, too. I agree that Graham misread your post, Sonia, and that you read the audience’s shocked reaction to be in relation to the suggestion of incest. However, the reference to a ‘uniformly white’ audience (in which you flagged up race presumably because you wanted your reader to make some sort of assumption about that) probably led him to expect that race was an issue in that sentence. I would caution against making over-generalisations about the ethnic make-up of audiences. Both my children are dual heritage and the blonde, green-eyed one is half Jamaican! As you say, you might have to be more explicit in future, putting that ‘seemingly’ in the text – otherwise it isn’t there!In an otherwise great review, you might need to clarify for future publication whether you supposed the audience shocked at the realisation that the kiss was incestuous, or whether you judged them to be disapproving of such an interpretive choice. The latter implies a criticism of the entire audience. I don’t think this is what you meant to convey, but the wording is a little ambiguous. I hope to see you at more Global Shakespeare themed events soon

  • Gary Grant

    Thank you for your response but I still find it astonishing that you needed to describe the Almeida audience as white. If you didn’t feel the need to describe the ethnic make up of the Belarus audience what exactly is your point ? My questioning of your scholarship is I feel relevant especially with regard to your final paragraph. The night I saw the production I felt that I had never sat in an audience that was so emotionally affected by the tragedy of Lear , especially as portrayed by Pryce.Over many years I have seen many Lears in many languages and found this one matchless.

  • Sonia Massai

    am afraid you’re misreading my post. The horror, which I detected when
    Lear kissed Regan in the opening scene and when he kissed both daughters
    later, I interpreted as horror at an incestuous (rather than an interracial)
    kiss. As I am sure you have noticed I do not discuss the casting at all and I
    focus most of my review on the incestuous quality of Lear’s relationship with
    his elder daughters. More generally, I wanted to make a point about the Almeida
    audience being almost exclusively white, *seemingly*
    middle-class, *seemingly* familiar with the play, *seemingly*
    enjoying what looked like a ‘straight’, exceptionally well-performed,
    production, AND then being shocked at the realisation that what they
    were going to see was a radical reading of Lear as an abusive and incestuous
    father instead. And that’s *obviously* how *I* read the audience’s response at
    the moment in time. The reason why I do not mention Lear kissing Goneril in the
    opening scene is not because Goneril is played by a white actor but because I
    (as well as those sitting around me, judging from the reaction I detected
    a few moments later) missed its significance. I simply did not register the
    incestuous quality of Lear’s relationship with his elder daughters until
    the second kiss. Having read your comment I do realise that the way I phrased
    the contested sentence can be misinterpreted (and will edit my sentence before
    this review reaches the press), so I thank you for your post. But I can
    reassure you that I did not mean to suggest what you imply above. Besides, your
    comments on the quality of my scholarship are unwarranted and the tone of your
    post totally out of line.

  • Gary Grant

    i find your comments unfathomable – especially regarding the failure to ‘manage the audiences expectations’. Surely you mean your expectations, as an audience can only be expected to appreciate what they see in the moment. You also staggeringly imply that the Almeida audience is rascist after having sat in rapt admiration ( all of 3 minutes ) shuddered in outraged disbelief because a white actor was kissing a black actor. You fail to mention if they were equally horrified when Lear had moments earlier kissed Goneril – a white actor. You are , as far as I know the only commentator to have raised the issue of Miss Jule’s ethnicity. What you failed to see was a father kissing his daughter possibly inappropriately . When writing your criticism I think it would be more honest to refer to your own personal prejudices rather than an audiences. If this post represents the quality of your scholarship then I despair.

Download a free book written by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells about Shakespeare, Conspiracy & Authorship. Download the Book.


24 brilliant poems, inspired by Shakespeare's life and art, bound in an artisan stitched chapbook

get your copy now