Rupert Goold’s ‘King Lear’ is set in a kind of metaphorical vision of eighties Liverpool. For Lear’s division of his kingdom the cast are dressed in shabby, late-seventies clothing suggestive of a retirement do for a trade union boss. At first it seems like an odd choice, the wide variety of regional accents appears random and the dowdiness of it all curiously depressing.
It rapidly becomes clear what Goold is up to. Once Lear has divided his kingdom, Regan and Goneril are next seen wearing the kind of dresses worn by Tory trophy wives in the early eighties. It is a sharp and incisive way into the play. Goold’s use of analogy is delicately suggestive and fluid. You don’t have to worry about it not mapping exactly. Its playfulness makes the storytelling incredibly clear and also turns the play outward, adding a fascinating intellectual layer to the emotional core.
The staging is as thorough as it is inventive; bursting with wit and constantly switching between intimate to epic. When Edgar and Edmund fight, it is with plastic swords like a childhood play-fight, albeit one which rapidly gets very ugly, adult and bloody. Lear’s speech in the storm is delivered into a microphone with showman-like panache. Gloucester’s blinding is played out with such gory relish that one man actually fainted on press night.
This wit and black humour make the moments of poignancy all the more moving. The sight of Postlethwaite’s bedraggled Lear being led out of the storm perfectly evokes the pity of the situation. While his befuddled madness – vulnerable, skinny frame clothed in a floral dress (“fantastically dressed, holding wild flowers” – neat) – is horribly believable. The supporting cast are universally excellent. It says something about the production that Michael Colgan even manages to make Goneril’s husband Albany interesting, funny and sympathetic.
The production achieves such a thrilling intensity that it leaves you feeling wrung-out and adrenalised; heart racing and emotionally drained. This is extraordinary theatre.
****** (Six, yes six! stars)