Friday 4 February 2011

Feisty Cougars

I am still excited after seeing King Lear transmitted live from the Donmar Warehouse to the Maltings Theatre in Farnham last night (along with dozens of other venues in the UK and around the world). Not for nothing has Derek Jacobi’s Lear been called the best in living memory.

It is often said that it is a play about madness but that is really a misunderstanding. Shakespeare – and his audience – were probably not so much concerned with mental illness as with the emotions, politics, and social upheaval which theatrical madness might illustrate. Nevertheless, let’s take up the challenge of looking at some diagnoses of key characters ...

Lear himself progresses from a position in Act 1 where he is already in the thrall of a massive and dangerous psychodynamic game with his daughters and courtiers through to psychosis and, following some remission, a final, fatal seizure.

This game can be readily identified. He adopts the position of an infant (5 years old maybe?) seeking approval and love from mother-figures (ironically, and disturbingly, actually his daughters). As his Fool says "thou madest thy daughters thy mothers: for when thou gavest them the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches".

Goneril and Regan are happy to play his game but the slightly priggish Cordelia won’t play and takes the consequences. In spite of a grounded intervention by Kent (who I think remains the only person to keep his mental balance rock solid throughout the play) Lear carries through his childish game into the macropolitics of the British realm and so the tragedy unfolds. His later psychotic phase is possibly unrealistic in the sense that the causal link from his initial game is suspect, although arguably the terrible events afflicting him are on such a scale that psychosis arising from both his initial imbalance and the environmental pressures is just about plausible.

The Earl of Gloucester's attempted suicide is not the result of a mental illness so much as betrayal by his bastard son Edmund and his violent blinding by the Duke of Cornwall. His dutiful son Edgar, disguised as "Mad Tom", employs an “ethically challenging" therapeutic technique to get his father straight, that is allowing him to believe that he has thrown himself off the cliff at Dover ("Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it") then remonstrating with him when he finds himself still alive. It works: says Gloucester

"...henceforth I'll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
'Enough, enough,' and die"

Edmund is the biggest villain displaying a spectacular personality disorder and a level of psychopathy only mitigated by his last minute qualm about ordering the hanging of Cordelia (or does he know it’s too late anyway, as my more cynical Mum suggests as we leave the theatre?).

Goneril and Regan are played as feisty cougars in this production driven by greed for power and lust for young Edmund which he merrily exploits. They have no recourse to mental imbalance as a defence.

In summary the good guys are the ones with the mental illness and the bad guys are disordered maybe or just plain wicked, a neat contrast to the modern tabloid and celluloid vision of mental illness.