‘No disco-dancing yet,” someone remarked in the interval. Given this theatre’s recent record of treating Shakespeare as a bitter pill that needs to be extensively sugared, that was a relief. But, while Nancy Meckler’s production is sober, chaste and decently spoken, it never fully capitalises on its central conceit.
The first thing we see is a group of vagrants occupying the Globe stage, battering down doors and stripping the sheeting off its pillars. But while Cardboard Citizens, a company combining homeless and professional actors, has taken a similar approach to Pericles and Timon of Athens, the idea of viewing Shakespeare from the perspective of the poor is never followed through. Scuffed suitcases line the stage and extensive use is made of a steel, supermarket-style goods-transporter. These feel, however, like token gestures: if this is meant to be Lear seen from the viewpoint of the evicted, you wonder why Poor Tom is the only visible beggar in the kingdom.
The main beneficiary of the approach is Kevin R McNally as Lear. Plucked out of the stage-invading troupe to play the king, he doesn’t have to overdo regal grandeur. Instead, with his white beard and cropped hair, which makes him resemble Ernest Hemingway, he presents us with a gruff patriarch not strong on family relationships. To his credit, McNally catches Lear’s contradictions, one moment berating Goneril as a plague-sore and the next getting a laugh by saying “But I’ll not chide thee”. He also speaks the verse clearly and the context gives extra bite to Lear’s attacks on the hypocrisies of power, but I rarely felt this was a Lear who had gone on a journey, via madness, towards “the mystery of things”.
There is good support from Saskia Reeves as a Kent who adopts a cloth cap and an estuary accent in her disguise. Burt Caesar, angry in a scarlet smoking jacket like the tramp in Pinter’s Caretaker, is a strong Gloucester and Joshua James does all he can as Edgar. The more, however, Edgar justifies his refusal to reveal himself to his father by claiming he wants to “save him from despair”, the more you realise how much he fails.
I’ve seen more exciting Lears, but at least Meckler’s production is more concerned, unlike the Globe’s dismal Romeo and Juliet, with poor people than Village People.
- At Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 14 October. Box office: 020-7401 9919.