These are exciting times at the RSC, oh yes. Hard on the revelation by new artistic director Michael Boyd that Stratford's finest is "horny" comes the stunning discovery by director Declan Donnellan that King Lear isn't a tragedy; it's a comedy and should be played for laughs.
Take Act Two, Scene Four. Lear's 'manservant' (Steven Robertson) is placed in the stocks by his son-in-law. Conventional reading of the text has it that Lear (Nonso Anozie) is so humiliated, his sanity begins to unravel. Donnellan, by contrast has Lear and his Fool (Edward Hogg) playfully squirt him with water pistols. Or Act One, Scene Four where Lear's daughter Goneril (Aishling Howard) upbraids the newly-abdicated king for the rowdy behaviour of his retinue. Instead of feeling shamed, maddened, after he has given her half his kingdom, this Lear mocks her with the v-sign - and other crudities.
I do not blame the players, fresh out of the new RSC Academy, who perform with verve. The blame for this sorry farrago should be squarely laid at the door of the director.
Anozie achieves an early gravitas and deserves better direction. Hogg, more stand-up comic than fool, is bright, but the outcome of this dire production is to draw one's sympathies away from where they should rightly fall. Thus, Cordelia (Kirsty Besterman) is shrill and petulant, rather than gracious and forbearing; Kent, Steven Robertson in disguise, is a second fool, an interpretation in no way supported by the text, as is Edgar (Bruce Godfree), while Gloucester Ryan Kiggell's violent manhandling of his sons encourages sympathy with his subsequent blinding.
Props, like the pathos, are minimal; the cast are dressed in Edwardian evening dress, while Lear sports, in addition, a sash and white gloves. Scenes overlap and even freeze-frame.
To kick the RSC gives me no joy but seeing this masterpiece played thus is inexcusable. Save your money; buy lottery tickets, the money would be more wisely spent. Better still, check out the recent audio recording with Paul Schofield; now that's what I call King Lear.