We were fortunate enough to get tickets to see Pete Postlethwaite King Lear at The Young Vic before it, very deservedly, sold out. So last wednesday we all headed down nice and early to get our seats, as it’s open seating, and ended up three rows back in the centre with splendid views. Nice. The seats are also pretty comfortable, which was useful as the performance is just shy of four hours including its two, very short, intervals.
The lights come up on the members of King Lear’s court dressed in late 70s garb, with everyone gathered around as Lear splits his kingdom unfairly between his daughters, and from that moment on we were gripped. Postlethwaite sounded for a moment as if his voice was going, but that might have been affected for the role as later his voice sounded amazing. The stage is set up to look somewhat like an abandoned set of steps, with grass growing through (freshly sown each performance I’d imagine given the treatment it gets later), and in the background corrugated iron leading up to a rickety set of covered steps.
So much happens in this amazing play, from the length and epic scale of the play itself, through the amazing performances of Lear, Gloucester, Kent and Gloucesters sons Edmund and Edgar, amongst others, through to the staging itself – at times light and whimsical, at times bloody and gory, but always gripping. This is not a lightweight Shakespeare, it grabs the play by the lapels and shakes it into a worthy spectacle. Modern, yet timeless, owing much to cinema, but rooted in the theatre. That said it’s not one to bring young kids to, as some of the gore is mildly brutal and disturbing, as well as the more overt sexual themes in places.
This is a great play. Postlethwaite is brimming with emotional intensity, not least during Lear’s steady decline into madness. His loss at the end, fighting for sanity and gripping his dead daughter Cordelia between his legs as he himself dies is wrenching. A solemn contrast to some of the set pieces that went before. Stand out moments: Lear in a dress twirling his parasol having completed his descent to madness, Gloucester’s son Edgar avenging his father against his half-brother Edmund with an amazing ‘play fight’ with bright plastic swords that ends with brutal reality, Gloucester’s earlier torture scene – paying homage to Reservoir Dogs, the flight through the rainstorm – with real rain – and the birth of Lear’s grand-child, the late 70s/early 80s staging – subtle and pervasive alongside English flag painted faces in Lear’s retinue, the fool’s capering intensity and banter, and Lear’s rage as his plotting daughters abandon him. So much to enjoy, and enjoy it we did. Very much indeed.