Did Lear sexually abuse his daughters? In Michael Attenborough’s austere new Shakespeare production, with a splendidly bearded Jonathan Pryce in the title role, there is more than a hint of something dark and inappropriate in Lear’s family history. You only get glimpses — when Lear lasciviously kisses Zoe Waites’s ruthless Goneril on the mouth, and when he stands indecently close to Jenny Jules’s neurotic Regan — but the idea hangs in the air and suggests that there is good reason behind the daughters’ callous emasculation of their father.
It also sheds light on why Phoebe Fox’s cool and better adjusted Cordelia (no hint of an abusive past around her) was the apple of Lear’s eye until, unlike her sisters, she refuses to heap meaningless praise on the King in order to win her third of his estate.
Yet this psychological insight into the strange behaviour of a monarch and the dodgy behaviour of his two eldest daughters, does not inform the evening as it might.
There is no way of knowing the origin of an idea seen in a play. But here it comes across as if Pryce has come up with a powerful notion that illuminates Lear’s past, but one which Attenborough fails to thread through the play’s entire three hours.
We revert instead to a default setting — an interpretation that sees Lear transformed from omnipotence to impotence; daughters whose hunger for power boils into blood lust; and the plucking out of noble Gloucester’s (a baleful Clive Wood) eyes, which makes Quentin Tarantino’s once heavily criticised ear-slicing torture scene in Reservoir Dogs look like an episode of Casualty. Still, to paraphrase Woody Allen’s observation about meaningless sex, as default settings go, it’s one of the best.
Pryce’s Lear begins in measured mode — there is not much sign of decay nor of madness during the curious divvy-up of land between his daughters. That comes later, with the dawning realisation that when he surrendered his power, he gave up his influence too. To begin the process, Pryce gives a priceless double-take at Goneril’s servant Oswald — an oily Steven Elliott — who blithely ignores his former king.
But as Lear explores the emotional aftermath of rage and the novelty of humility — achieved with a gallows humour often delivered with Trevor Fox’s watchful Fool like a music-hall double act — the king’s transformation feels hemmed in by Tom Scutt’s claustrophobic design of shadowy bare brick recesses and corridors. In fact, Shakespeare’s tragedy is never allowed to expand into the wilderness setting of its later acts. A tuft of grass here and there merely suggests decay. And although when Richard Goulding’s falsely accused fugitive Edgar disappears down a manhole, it seems as if we might be in for a Lear set largely in an urban dystopia, again it is not an idea that is explored.
You go slightly stir crazy with all that brick. I became desperate for a horizon. And if the sense is of a play whose huge reach has been impeded, it is a feeling that inevitably translates to Pryce’s intelligent King which, although commandingly performed, is never allowed to make the full geographical and emotional journey.