Review: The Cordelia Dream

Lear-based drama lacks shock value

By John Nathan, December 30, 2008

Wilton’s Music Hall, London E1

Michelle Gomez: Cordelia-esque

Michelle Gomez: Cordelia-esque

I am still shaking off the effects of my previous visit to this beautiful East End theatre, which is hosting a double bill of new work from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Adriano Shaplin’s stamina-sapping epic about the emergence of rationalist thought in Cromwell’s England took a very long time to say very little. Like a bad apple on a supermarket shelf, it prompted a question about RSC quality control: “How on earth did that one get through?”

Marina Carr’s Shakespeare-inspired two-hander takes less time to say more. But for a piece that so conspicuously draws on greatness in the form of King Lear, its conclusions about the creative process and the willingness of artists to put art before family still falls well short of profundity.

Carr’s play takes the form of a bitter family row — albeit a lyrical one. The action is set in a sparsely furnished plywood room where a once-celebrated elderly composer (David Hargreaves) works at his grand piano in monastic isolation.

This Lear-like figure is visited by his estranged, Cordelia-esque daughter (Michelle Gomez) who is more successful at her dad’s art than her dad. But her attempt at reconciliation — prompted by a dream in which she sees her dead body being carried by her father — descends into backbiting. He accuses her of stealing his talent. She accuses him of failing as a parent — a charge to which he proudly pleads guilty.

Carr’s simple message seems to be that artists are selfish. And as with Shakespeare’s tragedy, she subverts the notion of the special father-daughter relationship. But unlike Lear’s cruelty, this father’s demand for his daughter to sacrifice her career so that his can flourish feels too much like a dramatic device for it too hold much dramatic force. And so when, in the second act, we discover how she has acceded to his wishes — think Cordelia’s tragic end — the shock is fatally muted.

Still, Selina Cartmell’s production leaves the audience with a haunting image of an artist who has spent his life creating less than he has destroyed. And that, for every selfish artist, must be a terrifying thought.

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Last updated: 4:05pm, December 30 2008