This yearís Chichester Festival theme focuses on Ďcon artistsí, and the obvious inference in presenting King Lear as part of the programme is that we should observe the way that Learís daughters con him out of his possessions. Given the average age of the audience of the West Sussex audience here, Iím sure that the filial slights and perceived ingratitude highlighted in the play must find many resonances.
But Steven Pimlottís challenging production dwells less on the psychology of ageing and the frailty of family relations as much as on the power struggles within a British aristocracy, divided by loathing from the outset. This is a nakedly political interpretation, almost Brechtian in its use of the Foolís songs to interrupt the action, Alison Chittyís stark geometric set and Paul Pyantís harsh white lighting.
Right from the start, we see Stephen Noonanís nicely sardonic Edmond contemplating a map of England, waiting to be divided - we have a sense of ambition in every corner. The realm Pimlott evokes is also a particularly bloody one, devoid of any compassion. Even Cornwallís servants are not permitted to treat the blinded Gloucester. Itís easy to see how Lear loses his authority in such a place
David Warnerís rather low-key king is no match for the calculating politicians around him. Whatís sorely lacking from Warnerís performance, however, is Learís growing sense of impotence as he contemplates his waning powers. The characterís madness is driven by this helplessness - this king seems almost contemplative of his fate. When he says, ďLet me not be madĒ, itís as if heís a man weighing up the possibility as a career move, rather than one rapidly losing touch with his wits.
If the fire is missing, Warner is nonetheless touchingly excellent in the final scenes, when he tenderly removes his robe to cover the dead Cordelia. As played by Kay Curram, the youngest of Learís daughters is no whining wimp. Sheís more than a match for her siblings Ė witness how she thrusts herself at Burgundy, almost daring him to take her with him. As her elder siblings, Lou Gish and Zoe Waites make for a deliciously malevolent Goneril and Regan. In fact, thanks to the excellent performances of all three, this is a production that is really dominated by the daughters.
But where is the sense of decay? Rather than facing any acknowledgement of their own failing powers, both Lear, and to a lesser extent Richard O'Callaghanís Gloucester, seem almost helpless spectators as events unfold around them. Never have Edmondís musings on the futility of horoscopes seemed more apt. Weíre reminded that this is a play full of the direst cruelty, depicting a world where events are shaped by not the stars or the gods but human against human. A world where thereís little need of a con artist to encourage self-deception.
- Maxwell Cooter