Is blood really thicker than water? Upon watching ‘King Lear’, Shakespeare forces his audience to ponder the proverb which provokes such a searching question. Islam places the utmost importance on the concept of family, and this drama plumbs the depths of familial relationships.
David Farr’s production is skilfully imagined and deftly executed, offering a valuable comprehension to one of Shakespeare’s more difficult and complex plays. As one of the Bard’s most brutal and unforgiving tragedies, ‘King Lear’ explores the folly of old age and the ruthless ambition of the young, leading to a fatal clash of generations. The story of a King’s fall from grace at the hands of his children sees the fragility of the human condition effectively replicated on stage under Farr’s capable direction.
Shakespeare explores the weighty issues of evolving generations, sibling rivalry, next of kin and the mutual responsibility between parents and their children, to devastating effect. The failure of two fathers to recognise the true nature of their offspring leads to lessons learnt in the most vicious fashion. Greg Hicks’s rakish and foolhardy Lear, and Geoffrey Freshwater’s pity inducing Earl of Gloucester, both convincingly portray heartbreaking despair as the beleaguered fathers.
When the aging yet self-indulgent King Lear decides to distribute his land between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and his youngest Cordelia, he uses the opportunity as an exercise in vanity. This backfires, however, when his two eldest preen his ego, waxing lyrical about their insurmountable love for him, but his favourite, Cordelia expresses due reverence to her father, offering no further flattery. Flying into a rage, Lear disowns and disinherits his youngest and gives her away in marriage to the King of France without dowry. His bruised ego mistakes her plain words for bad character and his two elder daughters’ saccharine compliments as a reflection of their true devotion. He is unable to distinguish between the superficial and the honestly simple. Dividing his land between Goneril and Regan and their respective husbands, Lear soon learns that he is not in their best interests when he is heartlessly turned out of their homes during a storm.
As Lear’s royal pomp and status slowly disintegrate, so does his short sightedness as the true nature of his eldest daughters dawn on him. It is only when he is in the grips of madness, driven insane by their mistreatment, that he realises the extent of his mistake having denounced Cordelia.
Similarly, when Gloucester’s illicit son Edmund, played by a fittingly knavish Tunji Kasim, accuses his legitimate son Edgar of plans to usurp their father, the Earl rashly believes him and calls for his legitimate heir’s death. Edmund’s intentions to gain his half brother’s inheritance do not occur to him. Both Gloucester and Lear’s metaphorical blindness unwittingly aid and abet their ill-intentioned children to take advantage of them in the most disturbing ways, while their true kin are cast away. In the most relentless scene in the play, Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out, a bitter irony for the father who only later gains true insight into Edgar’s innocence, who later approaches and looks after him in the guise of Mad Tom. Left to wander the heath, the blind and bloodied father stumbles across Lear, where together they lament the treachery at the hands of their own blood.
Such scenes are discomfiting to witness, even on stage, because Shakespeare imparts a sense of taboo among his audience through highlighting the gross abuse of the elderly by their own family. It brings to mind the very contrast of the Quran’s passage concerning the treatment of parents, “And your Lord has commanded that you shall not serve (any) but Him, and goodness to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, say not to them (so much as) “Ugh” nor chide them, and speak to them a generous word.” (17:23). The verse heightens the horror unfolding before us, as the two aged men, a pitiable sight, compare their sorry lot.
Jon Bausor presents a sparse and sprawling industrial set that at once serves as a kingdom in flux with collapsing walls and flickering lights. Later it acts as the wilds of the heath where Lear eventually seeks solace and suffers the height of his madness. However, it is mainly up to the audience to conjure the jagged cliffs and blustery hilltops from their own imagination- but this small ask is made manageable by the commendable acting from the RSC’s strong ensemble cast. Kelly Hunter and Katy Stephens are chillingly feminine as the wicked step sisters, while Samantha Young’s Cordelia radiates the warmth and vulnerability of a prodigal daughter.
Shakespeare draws his audience into the bosom of both families and makes them privy to the chaos that unfolds within his characters. Although a semblance of order is restored by the end, the intangible pain caused by the death of a loved one is palpable as we witness Lear’s fleeting reunion with Cordelia.
‘King Lear’ has much wisdom to offer its audience, and although real life may not always be so dramatic, its emotional evocations are never far from being close to home.
King Lear runs in repertory at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre in Startford-upon-Avon until 26 August 2010, £10-£45 (0844 800 1110, www.rsc.org.uk)
As featured in May’s edition of ‘emel‘ magazine