Theatre review: Shakespeare's King Lear at the Globe on DVD
Globe Theatre, 2017
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Nancy Meckler
Cast: Kevin McNally, Saskia Reeves, Ralph Davis, Joshua James, Burt Caesar, Emily Bruni, Sirine Saba, Loren O'Dair, Anjana Vasan, Chris Nayak, Thomas Padden, Faz Singhaten, Kenton Thomas, Buom Tihngang
Opus Arte DVD
By its very nature, King Lear is a work of two parts. Most obviously it's in the division between the stories of Lear and Gloucester that Shakespeare contrives to bring together, two almost distinct constituent parts that nonetheless highlight or bring further emphasis to each other, particularly when they become intertwined. The divisions bring out many other contrasting elements, youth and old age ("the younger rises when the old doth fall"), pride reduced to penury, how once great men are reduced to madmen and fools, but in the case of this 2017 revival of the Globe's King Lear, there appears to be more of an interest in exploring the emotional range of the work.
There is no great weight or emphasis placed on any one aspect of King Lear in the Globe's production, no attempt to apply it to any particular modern revision or interpretation. To use a phrase that can hide a multitude of sins and sometimes a complete absence of ideas, Nancy Meckler appears to let the play dictate the content, allowing the universal elements of tragedy and comedy arise out of a human response to what follows when a dysfunctional family - two dysfunctional families - set off on the path to ruin.
In terms of look, feel and setting, well the Globe theatre doesn't offer much room for elaborate productions and King Lear certainly doesn't need one. Meckler however chooses to establish a framework or meta-theatrical view the production, one it has to be said that doesn't over-impose or distort the meaning and seriousness of the content, but it doesn't really brings anything new to the work either. It's viewed as a production put on by a group of travelling actors who break into the theatre, its doors and pillars all covered up with plastic sheeting, and decide to put on a performance of Lear, improvising costumes and props with whatever they can find backstage.
The strength of Shakespeare's King Lear is - more often than not - in Lear himself, or rather in the balance between strength and weakness that Lear grapples with, in the contrast between a proud and authoritarian king being reduced to a wandering beggar dismissed by his daughters and mocked by a fool. It's that and the potential tragicomic contrast within it that Kevin R McNally brings out so well. It's not the grandstanding star turn of a knighted thespian that the role of Lear usually attracts, but a performance that strives to find the human qualities within the fate of King Lear.
Nancy Meckler's production and the idea behind it does try to bring a little more comedy to the play, putting emphasis at least on how commands and dismissals are barked out peremptorily by common actors aspiring to the heights of rulers. By the same token however, this is balanced out by the gory brutality that lies in the darker side of the play, in the tearing out of Gloucester's eyes, in the mental torture - much self-inflicted - that Lear must endure, in the twisted machinations of Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund against his brother Edgar.
What arises out of this is not so much a balancing of comedy with tragedy as much as highlighting the divisions between good and evil. Other Shakespeare plays can go to darker places, but there is none where there is a greater range and gulf between the evil that men can do to one another (in Edmund, Goneril, Regan) and man's capacity to love, show kindness and understanding to their fellow man (in Kent, Cordelia, Edgar). And in between them, buffeted by the storms, are the tragic figures of Lear and Gloucester.
The may be no great new insights provided, but that wide, extreme emotional range of the play, so necessary to convey the range of man's nature to its fullest expression, is fully achieved here. It's hard to pin it down to individual performances, although Kevin R McNally's Lear is crucial and one that really gets to the human heart of the king, and Saskia Reeves is superb and brings a sincere heartfelt concern as faithful Kent, but the characterisation is strong throughout, each making an impression and contribution to the overall dynamic of the work.
Filmed live in the Globe's open-air theatre as evening falls, the conditions aren't the best for recording, particularly for a standard-definition DVD produced in NTSC format for worldwide compatibility. The image is quite soft and lacking in detail, movements are juddery. If you want a HD presentation, there are a number of streaming platforms such as Digital Theatre that present Opus Arte's theatre, opera and ballet recordings in High Definition. The audio mixes in DD 5.1 and DD 2.0 are good. Dialogue is clear on the centre channel in the surround mix, with music (some furious drumming) and ambience on the surround channels. English subtitles are provided. Extras include some brief interviews and a booklet with an essay on the potential for humour in King Lear, a synopsis and some of the memorable lines of the play.