Abbey Theatre, Dublin ***
Kings, much like popes, are never supposed to retire: it stirs speculation about legacy and continued influence while inviting a more intriguing question: “What is going on his head?”
That’s the question that seems to guide Selina Cartmell’s new staging of King Lear for the Abbey, a tragedy that begins when a grand public display is at odds with private feeling. Although the director is often celebrated for all-encompassing spectacles, it’s the private man that seems to fascinate her most, and here those two impulses are not comfortably reconciled.
That’s strange, because Lear’s court is pure theatre. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Owen Roe’s swaggering king asks his three daughters, leading them centre stage and directing the performance. Tina Kelleher’s Goneril must be prompted; Caoilfhionn Dunne’s eager Regan almost needs to be halted and Beth Cooke’s Cordelia refuses to perform.
As the production follows the repercussions of her rash disinheritance and Lear’s dawning madness, the stage becomes similarly tangled in unfocused showpieces and smaller, more revealing gestures. To balance the two, Cartmell attempts an almost filmic presentation, intercutting scenes, making some speeches internal, floating Aaron Monaghan’s virtuous Edgar around his usurping half-brother Edmond (Ciarán McMenamin) during a villainous soliloquy. But Garance Marneur’s set doesn’t make flexibility easy: a monumental, two-tiered construction of ancient stone and modernist frames, often harshly illuminated by Chahine Yavroyan. Only the excellent Monaghan knows how to manoeuvre through it comfortably, shifting identities just as persuasively, and McMenamin suffers most, delivering awkward asides from the isolating upper platform.
Lorcan Cranitch delivers strong support as the gulled Gloucester but the play belongs to Roe. We later see his Lear raging on the heath, solemn and grim, but it’s his small mithered gesture of pouring wine into an upturned goblet that makes the more startling impact. It exposes another production idea that doesn’t work, though, when Lear’s curses cause the heavens to shake and people to cower: how can a man who controls the elements be undermined?
The freshest insight is much more subtle and genuinely makes you see a character anew. In manner and costume, Hugh O’Conor’s Fool suggests a deeper backstory, someone disgraced or demoted, but certainly never born to play a jester. In a play where truth is punished, it makes his sharp, bitter counsel much more resonant.
It also hints at what the production might have been, but the inspired takes of Cartmell’s Titus Andronicus or Macbeth seem smothered here, and it’s sad to see a regal Irish wolfhound merely trotting back and forth, Liz Roche’s choreographed action later stilling into generic crowd scenes, or a by-numbers sword fight where, inevitably, someone is hoist with their own petard.
Nothing will dim Lear’s most tragic moment, though, even if it suggests that such attention comes at the expense of an uneven production. In his earth-shaking howls, Roe makes the whole theatre reverberate with his grief.
Until March 23rd