Posts Tagged ‘Michael Pennington’

#Shakespeare400 “King Lear” revisited

I saw King Lear again last night – a touring production in the Oxford Playhouse, with Michael Pennington, a very favourite actor of mine, as Lear. I go back quite a long way with both actor and play. On my first visit to Stratford-on-Avon, back in 1978, I saw Michael Pennington play Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the Duke in Measure for Measure, and I have since seen him play Timon of Athens, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra), and double up as Claudius and Hamlet’s father’s ghost in Peter Hall’s production. And as for the play itself, it has haunted my mind ever since the age of eleven, when my parents took me to see a production at the Edinburgh Festival with Timothy West in the title role. That night, I was so excited by what I had seen, I couldn’t get to sleep. I have seen the play on stage several times since: by my count, last night’s performance was the ninth. There have been some extraordinary Lears amongst them – Brian Cox, John Wood, and Timothy West again, some thirty years after I had first seen him in the role. (I have also seen Robert Stephens’ much admired performance, but I saw him only at the end of the run, when it was obvious that he was physically exhausted, and not really up to it: he died shortly afterwards, and it was intimated that the physical exertion of playing the role hastened his demise.)

I think it’s fair to say I have been very close to King Lear over the years, although I should be careful about making such a claim: this huge, craggy monster of a play is not really something one can get very close to. But for over forty years now I have read and re-read it, seen television broadcasts, heard radio productions, listened to audio recordings, revisited it in my imagination God knows how many times – made it, in short, my own. I have no gift for memorising things, and don’t try to do it anyway, but I found, watching the play last night, that I could anticipate every line spoken; I could identify the omissions, the slight re-orderings; I could even tell at which point they were following the Quarto or the Folio text. One would think that when one gets to such a stage, the interest in the play itself would become a bit jaded, and focus not so much on the work, perhaps, but on how it is done this time round: how, after all, can one be shocked or overwhelmed by something one has been so familiar with for so long? But that was not the case. Not that I didn’t take an interest in how it was done this time round, and not that I didn’t make comparisons with previous interpretations: one can hardly help doing either. But the sheer elemental force of the play, a force so unremittingly powerful and startling that it seems to render all commentary both irrelevant and impertinent, remained undiminished.

Will there ever come an age, I wonder, when this play will not speak with such burning urgency to the issues of the times? The world is currently on fire. Perhaps it always was, and I am just noticing it now more intensely. Senseless hatred, cruelty and brutality on unimaginable scale, grotesque injustice, and dumb animal suffering – somehow, no matter how much the world changes, some things seem to remain with us, as if ineradicable. This is the world of King Lear. The centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. We get a sense of being close to the apocalypse itself. And yet, when we came to the storm scenes at the centre of the play, I found myself asking just how we came here. Was this inevitable from the opening scene? One could certainly trace a coherent line from the opening scene to this raging tempest, a tempest both real and also of the mind, but could that line have been otherwise? If, say, all we had of the play was that opening scene, could we have guessed that this is what it would lead to? I don’t think so. If we had the opening scene alone, we would, I think have conjectured this to have been the start of a fairy-tale: we may have conjectured that the rest of the play would have been something like, say, Cymbeline. For that opening, though psychologically coherent, does have a fairy-tale feel to it. But how did we get from a fairy tale to … well, to this? Despite all the familiarity with the text that I had bragged about earlier, I honestly don’t know. There’s a mystery about art of this stature, no less than there is about life itself, that all the knowledge and understanding in the world cannot fathom. And, furthermore, I claim only familiarity with this play: knowledge and understanding are different matters.

We tend to think of the play these days as, essentially, a bleak play. Since Peter Brook’s ground-breaking production with Pau Scofield in the early 60s, we tend to think of it in Beckettian terms – dark, desolate, comfortless. But it was not so long ago that so distinguished a critic as Kenneth Muir (editor of the old Arden edition) was seeing it as essentially a Christian play – a play about a man who loses the whole world, but gains his soul. We like nothing better these days than to scoff at what we deem to be “sentimental”, but if it is indeed true that Muir’s view of it as a Christian play falls well short of telling the whole story, seeing the play through a Beckettian lens seems to me to fall similarly short. For although we see the most extreme evil and cruelty in this play, humanity is by no means presented solely in such terms. Indeed, it may be claimed that in no other work of literature are we presented with such overwhelming pictures of human good – of good that is tender, self-sacrificing, heroic. And Muir isn’t wrong in what he says: Lear does lose the whole world, and he does gain his soul. That is not the whole story, no, but is there any formulation of this work that can give us the whole story? In the end, we simply do not know. We do not know anything of the nature of the gods – whether, in their inscrutable way, they do indeed administer justice of sorts, or whether they see humanity as wanton boys see flies, and kill us for their pleasure. We do not even know whether the gods exist at all. The extreme good and extreme evil we see are all human good, and human evil: what need of gods or of devils when we can fulfil ourselves the roles of both? By the end, both good and evil are destroyed: so absolute is the sense of destruction that no-one even pauses to think of who should now rule, of how the country should now continue: such matters are important at the end of a Hamlet or of a Macbeth, but not here. Is the Good we see an irrelevance because it is crushed by the Evil? Or does the very presence of Good, miraculous as it is, redeem the world on some plane, despite all the Evil that engulfs it? The play offers us no hint of an answer either way. Lear speaks of taking upon us “the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies”, but even this is ambivalent: are we spying on behalf of God, who, by implication, cannot see what is happening in his creation? Or are we spying on God himself?

This year will be the Year of Lear for me. I have tickets to see Anthony Sher play the role this summer at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (after his magnificent performance as Falstaff, expectations are high) ; and it has been announced that later this year, Glenda Jackson will be coming out of retirement to tackle this Everest of Shakespearean roles. And I am certainly not missing out on that. My obsession with this most terrible and awe-inspiring of works shows no sign of diminishing.

Revisit Lear? When have I not inhabited this play?

“Antony and Cleopatra”, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2012

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Chichester Festival Theatre (co-production with Everyman Theatre, Liverpool), 2012, featuring Michael Pennington as Antony and Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra, directed by Janet Suzman

The first and biggest surprise came even before we’d entered the theatre: posters advertising the production featured Michael Pennington as Antony, and, instead of the vigorous middle-aged man beginning to decline into the vale of years that I, for one, usually expect to see in this role, we were presented with a man who is already very much declined: Antony here is an old man with a leonine snow-white mane of hair and beard, glowering at us in truculent defiance. This is not how I had previously pictured Antony: had I not known which play this poster was advertising, I would have suspected King Lear.

Opposite Michael Pennington is the extremely glamorous presence of Kim Cattrall, seemingly unwithered by age, but, perhaps, lacking something of that infinite variety Enobarbus speaks of. But then again, it is not possible for any actress to present that fabulous, endlessly fascinating creature that Shakespeare had written. Indeed, I often wonder whether Shakespeare, a practical man of the theatre, had actually expected this character to be depicted as she is described:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breathe forth.

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

Now, who could possibly live up to this? But then, this is a play in which lays bare the gap between soaring poetic imagination and flawed mediocrity of mere mortals: possibly, Shakespeare didn’t expect anyone to live up to Enobarbus’ depiction: rather, he wanted his audience to contemplate this gap, perhaps even to laugh at it, and yet, at the same time, learn not to be disgusted by the flawed mediocrity, and also to wonder at the sheer power of the human imagination that could transcend it. For, increasingly, it is this transcendence that seems to me to be at the heart of this extraordinary play.

Antony, when he first see him here, dances awkwardly towards Cleopatra, a ludicrous figure, a man who, like Lear, has but slenderly known himself. But unlike Lear, Antony, even at the end, does not quite know himself. When he has to ponder on what really he is, he confesses to being puzzled: he is like those clouds that constantly change shape, as “indistinct as water is in water” – he cannot hold his “visible shape”. Like Coriolanus, that other tragic protagonist of late Shakespearean tragedy, this is a man who is lacking in thought, lacking in self-awareness; and, as his mortality draws close, he is puzzled.

Usually, Antony is presented as a man who, in his late middle age, is tired of all his responsibilities, and seeks nothing more than the pleasure of lying in Cleopatra’s arms: but the extreme age of Antony in this production somewhat changes this. Here, we have an old man who has not outgrown the habits of youth, and who doesn’t realise how absurd those youthful habits are in venerable old age. When, later in the play, Antony imagines sporting with Cleopatra after death in the Elysian fields, he cannot resist reverting momentarily to his dance, forgetting for one brief second the grim reality of the present: the afterlife awaits, and for Antony, the rest is not the silence that Hamlet imagines, nor the damnation that Othello knows he cannot escape: Antony’s rest is but an eternity of youthful dancing in his beloved’s arms.

And yet, Antony seems to love Cleopatra more when she is absent than when she is with him. When they are together, they merely mouth to each other banalities:

There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.

Thou art
The armourer of my heart.

Even when Cleopatra bursts into those miraculous lines

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven

she is speaking in the past tense, and is upbraiding Antony. They both speak magnificent love poetry – some of the very finest in the whole range of literature – but rarely to each other. And this production, more than any other I have seen, made me wonder precisely what these two characters feel for each other. That there is a powerful attraction between the two cannot be doubted; but, perhaps, it is not as all-consuming as either may like to think.

Kim Cattrall does not have the variety of vocal delivery that one may ideally wish for in this role, but she conveys, nonetheless, a person who, like Antony, cannot even begin to understand herself. Director Janet Suzman, herself a famous Cleopatra in the legendary Trevor Nunn production in 1973, speaks of Cleopatra’s political nous, but it’s hard to discern much evidence of it in this production: this Cleopatra mechanically signs documents placed before her without even looking at them, and shows no interest whatever in affairs of state. Or even the state of her own battleships, as she calmly assures Antony that she has “sixty sails, Caesar none better”. Antony is a character who had once, at least, taken his responsibilities seriously: even the very serious-minded Octavius can barely contain his admiration for Antony’s past acts of heroism. But there is no suggestion in Kim Cattrall’s Cleopatra of someone who had ever taken her responsibilities at all seriously. It is easy to side with the lovers against the cold pragmatism of Octavius, but Octavius is a leader who can at least consider seriously the concept of “universal peace”: all Antony and Cleopatra seem able to consider by the end of their lives is walking for ever hand in hand in paradise.

Octavius is a difficult character to bring off. He seems to embody all the virtues of puritanism – hard work, abstinence, discipline – all those virtues that are so necessary for the well-being of the world; but he is devoid of poetry, incapable of deriving any pleasure in being alive. In the banquet scene on Pompey’s barge, Antony advises the young Octavius to be a “child of the time”: Octavius’ brief answer – “possess it, rather” – is chilling. Sadly, and inexplicably, this brief reply is cut in this production, but it crystallises perfectly very differing perspectives in life of the two characters. It is Antony’s perspective that is, inevitably, the more attractive, but it is a mistake, I feel, to present Octavius merely as an unfeeling killjoy: his perspective, whether we like it or not, has validity also. Martin Hutson presents Octavius as, by nature, a very passionate man, but also as a man who knows that he needs to curb that passion: thus, his grief on hearing of the death of Antony, emerges, as it should, as a genuinely heartfelt lament, and not merely as an embarrassing piece of cant. This Octavius is also, at least to begin with, in awe of Antony, and conscious of his own lack of stature in Antony’s presence: in the conference scene in Act 2, he is both angry with Antony, and yet, at the same time, somewhat intimidated by his rival’s very presence. If Antony is an old man still playing at being young, Octavius is a youngster – and very recognisably a youngster – who, despite his inexperience, understands what his duty entails, and who spurs himself, though not always very successfully, to rise to it. Meanwhile Antony, without any self-awareness or self-restraint at all, sinks into mere unthinking hedonism and bluster. Octavius may still not be a likable character, but nonetheless, he demands our respect. It is a marvellous performance.

Only Enobarbus disappoints – rather surprisingly, given that it is performed by the experience old hand Ian Hogg. His big speeches about Cleopatra should ideally be spoken with a relish indicating Enobarbus’ own infatuation with the Egyptian queen, but here, they pass for very little. Neither his desertion of Antony, nor his remorseful death, makes the dramatic impact it should.

As for the production itself, it may be described by those sympathetic to it as “uncluttered”, and those less sympathetic to it as “bland”. The sets, on two levels, are mainly functional; and one could certainly have wished for a bit more imagination in the Egyptian scenes, which appeared here to be taking place in some tacky night-club with a few Oriental trappings. But the main thing, for me, is that there was no eccentricity or quirkiness to distract from those glorious words: it is in those words, after all, that the drama is contained, and I much prefer a functional production, such as this, that doesn’t obscure the language, to some grand directorial statement in which Shakespeare’s language and construction take second place. Others who prefer the director and designer to show stronger hands may disagree.

But what drama it is! I really do not know why this play appears to obsess me so much (I have written about it here, here, and here), but even mediocre performances can leave me breathless with excitement. It is a play in which two deeply flawed and frankly rather ordinary people are raised to the most exalted level by the sheer power of Shakespeare’s soaring, poetic imagination. This particular production may not go down in theatrical history as, say, Trevor Nunn’s 1973 RSC production, but I left the theatre last night feeling exhilarated.