King Lear at the Cockpit
It’s a mystery as to who would have the guts to put on a production of King Lear while the National Theatre does the same with no less than Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) as director. Well, it’s not a mystery actually – production company Darker Purpose would have to put their hands up to this gutsy move bringing the aged King Lear to the intimate in-the-round theatre space at the Cockpit in Marylebone.
Although the Southbank’s lavish production may have something to do with some empty seats on press night, the Cockpit’s version of King Lear has the merit of starring David Ryall, arguably a more suited actor to play King Lear, having acted under Sir Lawrence Olivier himself at the National Theatre (that place again) from 1963-75 and starred in a number of Shakespeare productions spanning his long career.
What makes Ryall’s performance at the Cockpit a memorable and touching one, is that, regretfully, it comes after a bout of chemotherapy, leaving the actor fragile and sunken and unable to remember the play text as he used to. Ryall therefore carries a leather-bound play script and reading glasses with him for the duration, an addition that seems to offer the audience an alternative meta-theatrical interpretation of the play as an exploration of suffering and becoming older in the mind of the actor as much as the character. It’s interesting to note that Shakespeare himself wrote the play at a time of mass suffering and illness what with the death of a monarch and the outbreak of the great plague in 1603.
With the themes of illness and Ryall’s own suffering, one line from the play particularly resonates: “We are not ourselves when nature…commands the mind to suffer with the body.”
Illness and sickness we see combined with madness, particularly in the characters of Edgar, played by Dominic Kelly and Stephen Christos’ haggard and staggering Earl of Gloucester. Like Ryall’s Lear can be said to be illness playing at illness, the character of Edgar can be likened to madness playing at madness, where the character’s pretensions and disguises, meant to fool the likes of his father’s men, only serve to show the audience the madness that is struggling to break the surface of Edgar’s troubled story.
As can be said of all good, true renderings of Shakespeare, the Cockpit’s King Lear is highly text-driven, leading at times to stilted action and a heavy reliance on some young actors who, at times, struggle to command the space and the heavy Shakespearian dialogue. Despite this wavering, there are some strong performers in this ensemble and the theatre can offer a much more intimate and immersive audience space than the National ever could (unless of course you count the Shed which Sir Lawrence Olivier would never allow).
King Lear is on at the Cockpit until March 29th 2014, for further information or to book visit here.