Monday, 14 March 2011

I'll teach you differences #2

Lois and I went to see Derek Jacobi’s King Lear in Glasgow over the weekend. By contrast with qualms with the RSC production three years ago, this production seemed wonderfully focussed and poised. But the focus of the production was clearly on Jacobi. I had no sense of a strong ensemble element. Jacobi’s delivery of Lear controlled the whole performance.

One subtle but striking aspect was the way Jacobi’s Lear was perturbing and perturbed and simply elderly and confused from the very beginning. His rage, but also his tears, were constantly breaking through so that his mad initial treatment of Cordelia was just that, and organically linked to all that follows. (McKellen’s Lear was initially in control, if misguided, and slipped more slowly out of control in response it seemed to circumstances.) It was a play about the potential pathology of age and all the more miserably sad because of it.

The production had to be good to make up for something which I thought would colour the experience. I saw it at the Royal Theatre from half way up the gallery and thus the stage was tiny and almost between my feet, and, as a traditional presidium arch design, the space of the action resembled a distant television screen. The previous weekend, by contrast, I saw a couple of productions at the RSC in Stratford: Romeo and Juliet in the newly opened main Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Anthony and Cleopatra at the Swan.

The new theatre is based on the Swan’s shape (and the temporary Courtyard Theatre). That is, it is a thrust stage. I had assumed that mere key-hole surgery had been carried out to retain the original listed exterior. In fact, it was completely demolished within the external walls and a new and fairly wonderful theatre space inserted into it (so that, eg., the furthest seat is now 15m rather than 27m from the stage, and capacity is actually down from 1150 to 1040; the Swan by the way, is 400).

That said, I didn’t think that Romeo and Juliet really worked. It was as though it had half a novel guiding conception (only the leads, eg., in contemporary dress). Anthony and Cleopatra at the Swan the next night was much more enjoyable: an amazingly coherent, fairly straight rendition in modern military style.

The weekend before, I made it down to the Sheffield Crucible to see David Hare’s Racing Demon (a vast, too vast I think, thrust stage; a collection of issue-based speeches rather than a drama) and before that, in January, Quicksand, a locally written play about Morecombe Bay, at the Lancaster Dukes Round (240 seats).

In all those four earlier shows, the space (thrust stage or theatre in the round) of the action presents it as as direct an answer as one could wish for how theatre is distinct from cinema. We are presented with a three dimensional world rather than just an approximation to a sense data picture of vision in general.