Slap-happy Stand-up

The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of King Lear is a pacy triumph

Anne McElvoy

When I read that Tim Pigott-Smith had been cast as the wandering monarch in King Lear, it seemed a bit of a diminuendo. Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen have set the bar high recently and Pigott-Smith, despite a starring part in Enron and a previous life as a Bond villain didn’t seem to be in the same league.

Ian Brown’s faith is however fully vindicated in a disturbing, pacy production at the    West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. We begin on a slanted stage, which puts the cast and the grandeur of the kingdom at an awkward tipping point from the first scene. Pigott-Smith hobbles on in regal red, a slight crown already slipping down greasy grey hair. He slumps and grimaces like a man anticipating decline, Cordelia promptly banished with a viciousnessness that hints at an appetite for random cruelty, as much as dementia.

Here is an unlikeable Lear who doesn’t look as if he ever much liked his daughters, or at least not within the bonds of propriety. Yet as fate turns against him, Pigott-Smith captures the ferocity and draining pathos of the role, eyes darting between self-knowledge and racked despair as he is cast down. 

In a rounded cast, James Garnon plays an excellent, sly Edmund and the messy Fool (Richard O’Callaghan) delivers his lines like an erratic pub stand-up-one way to make the most of the fact that the Fool’s cracks are not always hilarious. In one annoyance, the part of Cordelia, a role that can easily tip into self-righteousness, is delivered by Olivia Morgan with all the self-satisfaction of an uppity student home for the  vacation.

King Lear has some major dramatic leaps for a director to conquer, such as why do Regan and Goneril move from being merely rude and thankless to murderous psychopaths with a fondness for eye-gouging? Brown’s confident direction didn’t quite iron these out, but the raw power of this production makes up for that. A bold design by Ruari Murchison allows the palace interior to swivel around to make a sort of vertical heath (on top of other travails, a lot of perching is demanded of this Lear). The effect is awesome. 

One grating inclusion though is Nazi-uniformed guards. Will no one rid us of this tired and usually pointless analogy? Apart from a cheap thrill, few directors have a clue why they are using it so wildly out of context. Me neither.

Shakespearean audiences were thoroughly involved, so they would have enjoyed a very Yorkshire moment when Goneril (a gorgeous, shrewish Neve McIntosh) gets into a spitting affray with her husband. It  was all too much for the man behind me in the stalls. “Slap her!” he cried — proof that the big man can still move modern groundlings to passion.

Back in London, we are offered more haunted souls from Conor McPherson in a new play, The Veil, at the National Theatre. McPherson is one of those precocious Irish playwrights who has been winning awards since the age of around six, with ghosts-and-Guinness yarns like the 1990s hit, The Weir.

The Veil doesn’t want for ambition — how many modern writers use German transcendentalism as the intellectual backdrop to a country-house play?

We’re in a grand pile outside Jamestown in 1822, with Lady Lambroke (a divinely throaty Fenella Woolgar) trying to marry off her tense daughter, Hannah (Emily Taaffe), to rescue the estate’s ruinous finances.

Alas, while highly-strung Hannah fixates on the suicide of her father ten years  earlier, present threats are all around, including revolutionaries and house-burning tenants living below the breadline. Into these cheery circumstances wander the defrocked clergyman cousin Berkeley (Jim Norton) and his laudanum-soused companion, Charles Audelle (Adrian Schiller), a philosopher-plagiarist with an unhealthy fixation on liberating the uneasy spirits of the place.

It takes some nerve to pull off a scary séance scene — memories of Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit undermine the enterprise — but this one is truly chilling with a couple of bone-shaking shocks.

McPherson weaves mentions of noumena and phenomena and references to Hegel and the Weltgeist deftly into the action (they’re rather swallowed up in some over-loquacious passages from the Blarney Stone clergyman). Other literary spirits are abroad too — the structure of the play is basically that of The Cherry Orchard, a wave of disruptive arrivals and painful departures, illuminating underlying tensions and social strife. Audelle is a poor man’s Coleridge, shabbily dispensing his “oil of the poppy” to drown his sorrow.

 The troublesome visitors are not so much Hegel’s great men channelling the “ruse of reason”, as ambitious but deluded strolling fools who can’t leave well alone. If the play is a bit overblown, McPherson’s ability to merge comedy and misfortune save the day. “Bring me a fitting measure of Our Lord’s own tears,” demands the housekeeper, not uncommonly in search of alleviating whisky. My companion commented that the flickering candlelight, resentful servants and constant slanging matches reminded her of a rather overwrought ITV mini-drama. It’s true: you need to suspend disbelief from the rafters for The Veil.            

But there’s something admirable about McPherson’s ambition in an era when a lot of young playwrights take easier roads. He may have bitten off a whole lot more than he can chew with the Weltgeist — but the gift of the gab surely is his. You won’t see anything like it until German transcendentalism is next in vogue, I assure you.

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