King Lear. Guess how much I love you? A dangerous game

  • Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester
  • Now at Birmingham Repertory theatre until 28th May
  • Directed by Michael Buffong

Don Warrington is a stately and commanding King Lear. He has the gravelly voice of a king which is reminiscent of Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore tones. The impressiveness of Warrington’s stage presence is teamed with a confused childishness. The play opens with Lear demanding each of his three daughters to articulate how much they each love him, in order to determine the portion of his kingdom they will receive. It is a painful sort of childishness, and seeing a comical, youthful Don Warrington afterwards in a Rising Damp video it is hard to reconcile the two faces. Shakespeare’s scene feels like a rather more sinister version of the children’s book Guess How Much I Love You?, where Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare affectionately try to gesture towards how much they love each other (“I love you to the moon, and back”). They reach towards the infinite and inexpressible in their efforts to embody an emotion which can feel unconditional, limitless – and so can never really be expressed fully using the finite source of language, or contained completely within the realms of words. These hares may well be more clued up on love than Lear is. Of course, Lear’s demands are entirely one way. Surely giving a kingdom is enough in return.

Cordelia’s response, I love you as a child should, shows a distaste for a performance in courtly rhetoric for reward and self gain – the promise of property and wealth. Her refusal to give a self-interested pitch is in itself an expression of selfless daughterly devotion but meets only with disgrace and disownment from her father. Pepter Lunkuse’s performance brings me fresh respect for the strong female character Cordelia. She refuses to gratify her father’s vanity (“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”), respectfully declines Burgundy’s regrets over refusing her (“that respect and fortunes are his love, I shall not be his wife”). And later leads an army to her father’s defence. One of my favourite lines in the play comes from Cordelia: “If for I want that glib and oily art to speak and purpose not – since what I well intend, I’ll do ‘t before I speak”. How do you convey this virtue of honest silence in a performance? Conveying the strength of this character in a form which is of course dependant on the spoken word is pretty special to see. The proof is in the action rather than the word. Cordelia’s words make me wonder how we measure performance and merit in the modern world – is it too much based on how well we express ourselves, in interviews, in meetings, in interaction with our peers? What about what we actually do? Is this the best way of recognising value, in oneself and in others?

Cordelia steps graciously down from the raised stage where the three chairs stand, whilst Lear throws his crown down on to the map of his realm and the two slippery Dukes kneel before him in feigned obedience. Lear has just thrown away his power and security and even his Fool can see it – he is like a snail giving away his shell and being left with just his horns without a case. Lear is unanchored, disconnected from himself and seems to have cast aside those who truly care for him and deserve to be held dear – Cordelia and his faithful servant the Earl of Kent  – who in fact never truly leaves, staying in disguise (Lear seemingly utterly fooled by a mere hood over the face) whilst Cordelia returns from France with an army upon hearing her father is in danger.

The unreliability of these linguistic tokens  is clear not just from this opening scene and its consequences, but also from the storyline of Edmund (Fraser Ayres) and Edgar (Alfred Enoch, from Harry Potter). This manipulation begins as Edmund waves around a letter, apparently from his brother, plotting the murder of their father Gloucester (“if it be nothing I won’t need spectacles to read it”). The later eye gauging scene is suitably gruesome, with squeamish audience members hiding their faces as an eye ball is ceremoniously thrown off stage, splatting in a wobbly white smear on the floor.

Miltos Yerolemou (from The Danish Girl) is adorable as the Fool, gambolling round with a painted white face throwing out gems of wisdom. The line that he is dead is easily missed, not as dramatically satisfying perhaps as Edmund’s demise, which is dismissed as a mere “trifle” in the tragic midst of royal deaths at the end of the play. Lear’s howl of “How” filling the theatre gives me shivers, his mourning over his youngest daughter’s body is awful to watch.

If I had a complaint it would be only that the Royal Exchange’s theatre space on this occasion was incredibly, snooze-inducingly warm! – probably not a result of the candlelight and atmospheric burning sconces, but possibly the stage lights heating up above? In any case, it somewhat changed my reaction to the scene where Lear is soaked in the storm (a triumph of lighting, sound and music) – which left me dreaming instead that a little cold water would in fact be very refreshingly welcome.

Since Lear dramatises the failure of leadership and collapse of single united kingly power and control, it is interesting that the tragedy is proving such a popular play to perform in this the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death. Maybe there is a political statement in there somewhere. No doubt it will continue with the performance of Lear by Glenda Jackson (a quarter of a century after she left acting for politics), which is scheduled for later this year at the Old Vic.

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