Friday 2 May 2014

Extra! Extra! King Lear Kills Fool!

The King finds an in-patient bed

It was back in 2011 when I used this Blog (link here) to examine the overt theme of mental illness in King Lear – I had just seen the Donmar Warehouse production beamed live into the Maltings Theatre in Farnham, Surrey. Derek Jacobi played the king and passed the "Can he carry Cordelia?" test adequately though there was some audience trepidation and an intake of breath as he set about it.

Last night I attended the new National Theatre production directed by Sam Mendes and beamed live into Theatr Colwyn. Simon Russell Beale was in the lead and surprised us by wielding his daughter’s unusually floppy corpse dextrously, impressive for a Lear who is short, portly, and puffs a lot but perhaps that was just good acting.

I am up here to attend an excellent meeting of our North Wales managers and Trustees who show great enthusiasm for our Let’s Get Physical! Campaign as well as their usual and longstanding commitment to the "day job" of supporting people with a mental illness and their carers through a variety of services.

Hafal Chair Elin Jones attends too and tells us it is her 70th birthday on Monday and so my present is a ticket for the play which Elin had spotted (the theatre is just opposite our North Wales office). I was confident that she has no reason to take it personally that Lear also has a theme of decline in old age because that doesn’t seem relevant to our lively and fully engaged leader! We agree it is a great production.

There is a further theme in the play of succession planning which is instructive. Although Hafal has no announcements to make on that at present it is only sensible that the Chair and Chief Executive consider such matters for the future.

But I don’t feel I need to consult Elin to assert that Lear’s succession plan was a remarkably poor one – essentially creating two autonomous Regional Managers selected on the basis of their sycophancy towards the outgoing regime while simultaneously demoting staff who were prepared to tell the truth and sacking the whistleblowers. This leads to a hostile takeover attempt (though this is seen off).

In this production the two wicked daughters are more than usually alluring and it is impossible not to admire them in contrast to the priggish Cordelia (did Shakespeare intend this subtlety of feelings? No doubt).

The one oddity in Mendes’ interpretation is that he has Lear kill his Fool in a moment of psychosis. This isn’t Shakespeare and it doesn’t have any obvious purpose. Lear does kill a henchman off-stage at the end of the play but that's completely rational and defensible as the fellow was in the process of killing his daughter.

I hope that the director didn’t feel this departure from the text was necessary in order to convey the depth of Lear’s illness. The author saw no need in the early 1600s and it is disturbing if today’s audience needs to see a homicide in order to associate mental illness with their tabloid expectations?


Lear was of course Welsh - probably fictional admittedly, but still definitely Welsh, one of Geoffrey of Monmouth's line of pre-Roman occupation British monarchs tracing us back to Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan Wars.

One line I picked up which I hadn't spotted before, a remark made by the Fool...

This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time

...a surreal joke - not only is he making a prophecy but foreseeing Merlin making it - confusing, eh?

Saucy cougars Goneril and Regan plus goody-two-shoes Cordelia and the King (in his prodromal phase)