Wednesday 25 June 2014
Lear, in tears
She moved me very much, as only Kathryn Hunter before her had on the stage (and I've seen a few King Lears. Jacobi's is probably No. 1, but his I experienced in a livescreening). Unlike Hunter, though, Ursula Mohan is not playing a man. Her Queen Lear makes sense from the start, where we see her joshing at the piano with her Fool (a male nurse as played by Joseph Taylor: and why not, said Ursula afterwards - isn't it the case with so many old people that their carers are the last to stand by them?) Phil Willmott's production is fluent, the ideas of its contemporary setting all followed through and its engagement with a tiny audience total (50, I think, the maximum in the tiny Union Theatre we love so much).
The verse speaking always makes sense, however variable the cast, and certain themes are driven home with unrelenting pungency, like early-onset dementia, drug-taking and homelessness. If that feels right-on, it never seems so as you watch. We arrive in the dark space and stand for the first 20 minutes to witness the capricious division of the kingdom (selfie before it all goes wrong, Mohan pictured in one of Scott Rylander's superb production pictures with Claire Jeater's Goneril, Daisy Ward's Cordelia and Felicity Duncan's Regan) then seats are unobtrusively set up. The last third takes place with half the audience sitting around a white-covered table on which the scenes on the way to or at Dover are acted out with unremitting vividness.
Mohan's Lear launches her downfall in chilling confrontations with her three daughters, the horror of what she says offset by the bewilderment and confusion we register so closely in her face. Is an invocation of sterility on a thankless daughter the more horrifying when it comes from a mother? I felt so. And Harriet Walter's wise words on the human predicament affecting everybody chimed with the universality of this Lear. It felt absolutely right to me, at any rate; not a false note, no meaningless histrionics from Mohan.
Our central 'act' took place mostly in darkness, with torchlight adding to the atmosphere of the scenes on the heath (Mohan below with Taylor's Fool). If only the soundtrack of thunder, wind and rain had been turned down for the arrival in the hut: the words here weren't so easy to make out above it.
Action after the second interval was raised to an almost unbearable and unremitting level of tension. The absolute highlight for me, the point at which the tears really flowed, was the emergence of Mohan's flower-crowned Lear from cardboard packing to confront the blind Gloucester on the white table.
The official Gloucester, Richard Derrington, pictured above, was sick, so Simon Purse, the Doctor in the original cast (well adapted for the Fool) took over. He did it with the script until the blinding, after which he was truly moving without a prompt.
Among the very mixed blessings of the cast, Rikki Lawton's Edmund was the spunky prankster-villain to the life, winking and nodding at the audience to keep his soliloquies vivid, showing some good in the character at the end (Edgar is not exactly likeable in this production). Super-statuesque Claire Jeater was the stylish Goneril, pictured with Lawton and Duncan below.
Catch the run, if you can get a ticket, before it ends on Saturday, We went because our dear friend Kurt Ryz, who knows Ursula well, praised it to me - and I know he wouldn't say anything insincere. Usually wary about 'backstage' visits, but I and our Berlin friend Debbie York were so moved that we had to see her. And how lovely she was, with plenty of insights which chimed with what we'd seen. The upshot of which is Debbie, always looking for new ways of presenting recital programmes, thought she might like to collaborate with Ursula on one in future. The actress willing, of course.
I wasn't sure if Ursula would remember me from our one meeting some years ago, but she'd just seen me on the telly. Which means the Glyndebourne documentary aired on BBC Four on Saturday. All of it was interesting and a lot of the details in it new to me, though inevitably it was compromised by being half about the history of Glyndebourne and half about Richard Jones's new production of Der Rosenkavalier, which was where I came in, and eventually I got used more than I'd expected. Any excuse for using more images by Bill Cooper from that extraordinary show, so let's have one from each act with the lovely Kate Royal as the Marschallin, Tara Erraught as Octavian, Lars Woldt as Ochs and Teodora Gheorghiu as Sophie
Anyway, the dovetailing was skilful and I especially loved the enthusiastic contributions of Gheorghiu and the utterly delightful Tara, a woman who clearly has enough inner strength to have weathered the recent storm in a teacup - s'ist halt vorbei - and who likes as I do to walk across the Downs from Lewes to the house.
Nice contributions from easy-going Gus Christie and David Pickard, but Jones is the king of the idiosyncratic both in what he said about the opera and about Glyndebourne, undercutting everyone else's no doubt sincere comments about the beauty of working in deepest Sussex by saying how he sometimes wanted to get away from 'Planet Opera' and smell the fumes of his native south London as he got off the train at Clapham Junction. He also described the olfactory effects he wanted from each act, stopping short of saying what pong the inn scene should conjure.
You can see the documentary on the iPlayer until this Sunday evening (UK only, friends abroad tell me). I do recommend watching the whole thing.
STOP PRESS: Don't miss the chance, via what else but The Arts Desk, to win two tickets to Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni. Sounds like an ace revival of a good show that's a hell (no pun intended) of a lot better than Kent's turgidly staged (but superbly sung and conducted) Manon Lescaut.
Later: wonders will never cease. Having alerted friends to Glyndebourne having the complete production up on its website until last Sunday midnight, I now find out it can be seen on the BBCiPlayer for another three months. Watch it here.