Not much rain in evidence on the blasted heath (I know – blasted is Macbeth but let it lie) in the Donmar Warehouse production of ‘King Lear‘ at MK Theatre this week. Abstract sound and lighting effects and such an unearthly echo put on Lear’s big “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” speech that the words themselves were lost. More about the production later, because first I have a problem with the play itself.
Groucho Marx puts his finger on it in his letter to brother Gummo describing an evening he spent in the company of T.S.Eliot (reprinted in ‘The essential Groucho‘).
… I took a whack at ‘King Lear’. I said the king was an incredibly foolish old man, which God knows he was …
That, too, failed to bowl over the poet. He seemed more interested in discussing ‘Animal crackers’ and ‘A night at the opera’. He quoted a joke – one of mine – that I had long forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile faintly. I was not going to let anyone spoil my Literary Evening. I pointed out that King Lear’s speech was the height of idiocy. Imagine (I said) a father asking his three children: Which of you kids loves me most? And then disowning the youngest – the sweet, honest Cordelia – because, unlike her wicked sisters she couldn’t bring herself to gush insincere flattery. And Cordelia, mind you, had been her father’s favourite.
And there you have it. I blame the Bard. Wam bam, straight into the action with no back story, no hint of the nature of his past kingship, no real reason why, and before you know it, an old man’s anger, full-on bitching and civil war. I’m with Groucho, floundering. What comes later in the text deserves a better setting, a better beginning. (And I could do without the eye gouging).
We get there in the end, of course: life, the universe, everything. This production is highly stylised, leaving the words, the actors, the lighting and sound effects to do the work. Indoors and outdoors the set is unchanging, crudely plastered (faux marble?) planks – across the back and sides of the stage, on the floor and the ceiling; hardly a prop, no scenery. Further stylised in that practically everyone was dressed in black (in period style but non-specific period) save for Lear in his white smock at the end, Gloucester with a white shirt (to show the blood) and Cordelia’s dark purple dress, not forgetting the Fool’s muted but still motley.
The cast was tremendous, of course. For all that I’ve said above I was enthralled. Derek Jacobi‘s Lear, after the initial Mr Angry, played a blinder. I’d never really thought of Gina McKee as a stage performer before, but as Goneril hers was a huge presence, with – for me – unexpected moments of real erotic power. So for all my reservations, about play and production, another memorable night at the theatre.
As it happens the romantic climax of George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch‘ is acted out against a backdrop of heavy rain storm, gusting winds, thunder and lightning. Not that you notice really, because the emotion is so intense. This climatic accompaniment is par for the course pace Em B I guess, but here the taboos are social, financial. She’s not only gonna marry beneath herself but giving up a hard-earned inheritance too.
‘Middlemarch: a study of provincial life‘ is set in the early 1830s (Great Reform Bill and all that) and was written 40 years further down the line. It is a book to cherish on so many levels – as a portrait of a society in change, for its observations of people rather than caricatures, as a vibrant storytelling embrace of ideas – and not least, as said in my last post, its anticipation of prose and authorial tone to come. Here too is recognition that, as Ruskin maintained, “There is no wealth but life” , even if Dodo did have a private income before she married the mad old failed uber-intellectual of a clergyman who tried to forbid her true love from the grave. There’s more humour than I remember too, some lovely sardonic stuff about the way women and what is seen as their function was regarded. Lovely bitter-sweet coda too, telling how things turned out later for the main participants. Great book, simple as that. I’m confident I’ll pick it up again in the years to come.
I read it on an iPad and ended up highlighting so many passages. Here are just a token to taste, starting off with the justly celebrated closing passage:
… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
… who can, as it happens, drop in lovely jaundiced asides like:
… the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.
Here’s Casaubon, the heroine’s first failure of a husband, and his intellectual’s fear of music (she was fooled by his seriousness):
“I never could look on it in the light of a recreation to have my ears teased with measured noises,” said Mr. Casaubon. “A tune much iterated has the ridiculous effect of making the words in my mind perform a sort of minuet to keep time — an effect hardly tolerable, I imagine, after boyhood.”
And here comes Oscar and his many heirs and heiresses even up to the present day, with a nod, of course, back to the Romantics, from the man she marries for love (from Chapter 22):
“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion — a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.”
“But you leave out the poems,” said Dorothea. ” I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem.”
“You are a poem — and that is to be the best part of a poet — what makes up the poet’s consciousness in his best moods,” said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.
Enough. And now for some more crossword clues from the Guardian cryptic that have raised a smile of late. As should be obvious, what we like are the puns good and bad, the word play. Answers below, in pale green so they’re not that easy to view:
- Spooner’s pet’s entry to working-class symbol (4,3) a beaut from Araucaria
- Lionel, fine as a composer (6) easy but irresistible from Gordius
- Perhaps Horace is aware of pronounced facial feature? (5,4) – thank you Arachne
- This land is in our heart and it’s in the head (7) – a patriotic Boatman
- It’s about Ulysses: say, is he queer? (7) – the master Araucaria again
- Made fish pie for the hungry (8) – neat from Rufus
- 19th centurt Act to improve the police? (6,4) – Rufus again, and
- They serve little Arthur during drinking bouts (19) – raise another glass to Rufus
Flat cap (cf cat flap) / Bartok / Roman nose (like Arsene) / Br-it-ain / Odyssey (odd is he?) / famished / Reform Bill (groan) / b-art-enders