So I just watched The Royal Shakespeare Company 2008 production of King Lear, starring Sir Ian McKellan in the title role.
This production is one of those fusion set designs I love with modern Shakespeare productions -- Half Renaissance, half Russian Revolution, WWII undertones. It was an interesting mix and choice of costumes.
For those of you who don't know what the play is about (I'd never read/seen it before tonight), King Lear abdicates his throne and divides (or doesn't) his empire between his three daughters. Drama ensues. There's treachery in Lear's house, treachery in the Earl of Gloucester's house, intrigue and bids for power and back-stabbing. It's messed up, but not as bad as some Shakespeare (I tend to think he, like Robert Heinlein, went wonky as he aged with some of his later works).
It being Shakespeare, there are far better and more complete reviews out there than mine, but my opinions:
1. Sir Ian rocks the house. This is fact.
2. I'm still not sure if the opening scene is evidence of Lear's hubris or his dementia. A degree of pride is expected in royalty, but the falling out with Cordelia (who I totally agreed with) and Kent seemed excessive. He learned his lesson about ass-kissers, though.
3. The actor who played Edmund, Philip Winchester, was a nice bit of eye candy, treacherous as Edmund was. I could totally see why the sisters fought over him, and the duel with Edgar at the end, with Goneril's guttural scream -- well played, madame.
4. The scene with Lear and the Earl of Gloucester, out on the moor, was wrenching and horrid and what angst is all about -- take notes, aspiring authors. That's hitting the bottom and looking up at the sun through thirty feet of water, still holding your breath and struggling to get back up there as you get weaker with every stroke. You know how this is going to end: you go down fighting.
5. I think what I loved most about this production is that there was high passion in every scene, with shifting loyalties for some and steadfast loyalty from others, and each actor was real and believable. I've read and watched quite a few of Shakespeare's works (Titus Andronicus, the Julie Taymor theatrical version, is probably my favorite) and I think this is what makes him so enduring--
It comes down to loyalty and love, and when Kent walks off with gun in hand at the end, you don't question that he's going to follow his king -- "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls me, I must not say no." -- That's who he is, and without his lord, he has nothing. It's an age of fealty to one man, one king, and the willingness to endure any suffering or humiliation to serve that man's best interests. It means telling the truth, even when you'll be shunned, and watching over him as a servant if you have to, re-molding yourself into someone you don't recognize anymore to protect your king. And when that man dies, there are no replacements. You swore to serve only him, for better or worse, whether he wins or loses, and his journey's end is your own. There is no swearing allegiance to the victor -- Your fate is your king's.
Of all the Shakespeare works I've read/seen, this is the most weary one, where you see all this unfolding, an old man slowly falling apart, families broken, and at the end, you want to give him peace. You agree when Kent commands "Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass!"
My favorite lines were the end:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Speak what we feel and accept the consequences, good or bad. Honesty, integrity, loyalty, love.