September 8, 2007

King Lear

Jan McLean         posted 11 May 2007, 09:57 PM / edited 12 May 2007, 12:30 PM

Before everybody goes running off to Auckland [or Wellington] to see this much-awaited version of King Lear, and raises a small mortgage to do so, you might like to read Germaine Greer’s wickedly wonderful account of the Brit season on the Guardian website.  The review is titled “So Ian McKellen drops his trousers to play King Lear…”

John Smythe      posted 12 May 2007, 12:29 PM / edited 2 Jul 2010, 09:04 AM

An Observer.Guardian article titled Phantom King Lear eludes critics has been reproduced in today’s Herald. Given it was first published on May 6, it would appear Germaine Greer’s account of the production, published in The Guardian on May 7, is Fleet Street’s direct challenge to Trevor Nunn’s absurd edict.

My position is simply this: if tickets are being sold at full price (as they have been for some weeks now), the public is entitled to see reviews. If the Royal Shakespeare Company truly believes understudy Melanie Jessop’s Goneril is substandard after all this time, what does that say about the depth of quality in their company. (Frances Barber was to play Goneril and the ban on critics was precipitated by the hip injury she sustained from a bad bike fall.)

From our point of view, with bookings now open for the Australian and New Zealand tour of this  King Lear and Chekhov’s The Seagull, and given the huge ticket costs, we are surely entitled to read some reviews. A bit more customer focus, please!

And what about all those other hard working and hopefully talented actors whose work is being critically ignored? They too are entitled to a better deal.

Jan McLean         posted 12 May 2007, 01:51 PM / edited 12 May 2007, 01:56 PM

Michael Billington (Guardian critic) is not allowed to review the production until June 1 when it has only a fortnight to run!!!  I find the justification given by the RSC as implausible – why have understudies if they’re not credible alternatives for whatever may eventuate to original cast members??

JayVirt   posted 12 May 2007, 02:18 PM

…….  except then we wouldn’t have got that brilliant and wonderfully funny review from Germaine Greer!

Jan McLean         posted 12 May 2007, 10:38 PM

True – can’t wait to show my Year 13s at rehearsal tomorrow!

John Smythe      posted 14 May 2007, 12:22 AM / edited 14 May 2007, 12:23 AM               

How about this then – Wellington theatregoers get a choice, with vastly different ticket prices too, I imagine.


The Royal Shakespeare Company’s all-reviewers-barred, full frontal Ian McKellen King Lear will not be the only production of the play in New Zealand this August. The week before the RSC production opens in Wellington (at the Westpac St James), The Bacchanals-Fortune Theatre co-production of King Lear will play five performances only Te Whaea theatre (see below for further details), with Edward Petherbridge in the title role.

It seems every time The Bacchanals plan a Shakespeare in Wellington, a larger mainstream company decides to put on the same play in the same year.  In 2004 The Bacchanals produced Romeo and Juliet ahead of a Downstage production; in 2005 their A Midsummer Night’s Dream was followed by a Circa production. This time only six days will separate the Bacchanals-Fortune and RSC productions of King Lear.

To add even greater interest, Messrs McKellen and Petherbridge are professional colleagues from way back, having managed two successful UK theatre companies together: the Actors’ Company in the 1970s and the McKellen-Petherbridge Company within the National Theatre in the 1980s.

Moya Bannerman            posted 14 May 2007, 02:46 PM

Wow, what an opportunity! In both of the couplings you mention it has been arguable that the Bacchanals’ ‘no budget’ / minimal ‘production values’ efforts have – despite having quite a few actors with limited skills – delivered a clearer and somehow more invigorating experience than the better resourced productions. Which is not to say that good design elements cannot enhance a production enormously. It’s just that Shakespeare can suffer from ‘over-production’ and I have never seen The Bacchanals bungle the Bard … (Fir the record, I really liked the Downstage R&J and thought Circa’s all male Dream was desperately ill-conceived.)

Presumably this Bacchanals/Fortune co-pro will have properly paid actors, a design budget and tickets will be more expensive than usual (the Bacchanals Hamlet last year was free or a voluntary koha!). Even so, where money’s an issue (is it ever not?), it’s worth noting that:

Fortune’s ticket prices range from $29.50 through $27 for seniors to $19.50 for uni students, $15 for school students to $13.50 for school groups. (What will the Te Whaea prices be?)

The Premium price for the RSC Lear at the Westpac St James is $175, with A Reserve $150, B Reserve $110, C Reserve $90. Restricted View Dress Circle $60, Occasional Impaired View Grand Circle $60 (no senior or student concessions are mentioned on their website).

Robert Catto      posted 15 May 2007, 10:38 AM

Interestingly, I’ve just booked B-Reserve tickets for Seagull and been told that the B price changes in the theatre, it’s actually $120 in the stalls & dress circle, and $110 at the top level Grand Circle.

I’ve emailed the St James (as their own site contradicts this, saying B-Resv is $110) so I’m hoping it’s a Ticketek mistake – but check if you’re booking those seats yourself…


martyn roberts posted 15 May 2007, 04:04 PM

Are we to assume with the RSC and the down trou version that we can call it ‘King Leer’?

Katurian               posted 15 May 2007, 04:57 PM 

Mayhap we should, Martyn. One can only hope it’s still a tragedy. It could be dangerous for Sir Ian if it is an uplifting event. Or maybe he’ll get a standing ovation. Okay, I’m sorry. Ahem.

barry shakespeare           posted 16 May 2007, 09:43 PM

Beware of UK companies that send a star surrounded by the B team of support players!

Robert Catto      posted 21 May 2007, 11:55 AM

Update on the pricing, it’s not a mistake, there’s now a “B Reserve Stalls” price of $120 – which is kinda like saying it’s B+ Reserve.  It’s more than B Reserve, but less than A Reserve…  Apparently the height of the stage meant that the very front row was worth less than the row behind it (which is A Reserve), which is in turn worth less than the rest of the stalls (all of which are Premium Reserve until you get back to Row O, if I remember correctly, where it becomes A Reserve).

This reminds me of the whole thing about Australian fashion labels changing the size categories, so people who used to be a 14 (for example) would now be a 12 – it seemed like a ploy to flatter customers into buying things because they wanted to believe they were actually a size 12.  When did A Reserve become the second-best seating available, rather than the best (as the letter A would seem to imply)?  It’s like we’ve all been bumped down a letter in the alphabet – what’s called B Reserve is clearly the third best seating available, but maybe nobody wanted to buy something called D Reserve for $90, because D made the seats sound REALLY bad.

I guess, as a former box office manager, I’m picky about these things – but I think it’s more than semantics I’m talking about here, it’s really straight out marketing; and to me it’s unclear.  If the majority of seats in the theatre are now considered ‘Premium’ class (at a premium price), where do you define normal or average seating to be?  Or, are we accepting that most theatre tickets now come at a premium?

martyn roberts posted 21 May 2007, 08:28 PM

So to be extra picky should we all consider the ‘carbon miles’ of this production and place our money on the far more green friendly NZ version which features only 1 overseas ‘carbon credit?’ The whole idea of buying a ‘brand’ (in this case RSC (TM) and Sir Ian McKellan (TM)) should alert us to what Naomi Klein was aiming at. Opt out. And think global but buy local. Put more money back into our own actors, directors et al…

Robert Catto      posted 21 May 2007, 08:46 PM / edited 21 May 2007, 08:46 PM

Unless of course any of our local productions also wish to tour internationally, in which case we should definitely not encourage audiences to count carbon costs!

Zip          posted 21 May 2007, 10:04 PM

Does anyone else think we’re too obsessed with ‘touring internationally’?  What’s all that about?

John Smythe      posted 21 May 2007, 11:40 PM / edited 22 May 2007, 08:59 AM

The good things about international touring include:

    it gives good shows wider exposure and greater longevity, and employs the companies for longer

    it redresses the balance of imported entertainment with quality exports that improve our profile abroad

    it proves the intrinsic value of the arts in achieving cultural distinction in the more global arena.

The danger is that the exportable tail wags the home market dog. Or, to change the metaphor, I sometimes worry that too much is spent on the flash shop window and not enough on tending the home market gardens.

We have to sustain ourselves first.

Sonal Patel          posted 22 May 2007, 07:33 AM / edited 22 May 2007, 08:29 AM

The danger is that the exportable tail wags the home market dog. Or, to change the metaphor, I sometime worry that to much is spent on the flash shop window and not enough on tending the home market gardens.

When has that happened?  I can recall any show exported from New Zealand that has “wagged the home market dog”.  Specific examples please.

Sonal Patel          posted 22 May 2007, 07:36 AM / edited 22 May 2007, 08:28 AM

Sorry, typing too fast  – what I mean is I can’t recall a case of a NZ show that has gone on to tour internationally having an adverse (or perhaps multiple spin off) effect on the content of what is happening on the home stage.

If you, dear reader, know of an example, please educate me.

John Smythe      posted 22 May 2007, 10:22 AM

I am moving this strand of the topic to a new forum entitled ‘Producing locally, touring internationally’.  If you are responding to that strand, please go to that forum. If you are responding to the King Lear strand specifically, please stay with this forum. 

John Smythe      posted 2 Jul 2007, 11:28 AM / edited 3 Jul 2007, 10:49 AM

No leering at willies in William’s Lear when it reaches Singapore. Sir Ian McKellen has agreed not to drop his undies on the blasted heath on the Singapore leg of the RSC tour, in order to avoid an R18 censorship rating, which would have meant hundreds of school children already booked would’ve had to cancel. Lyn Garner discusses it on Guardian Unlimited and a range of comments follow. What do we think?

Sonal Patel          posted 3 Jul 2007, 10:32 AM

Well, Lyn Gardner may feel uneasy, but I think she’s overreacting a little.  The censorship of Lear is absolutely nothing like what happened over Jerry Springer the Opera and Behtzi

Like it or not, Singapore has very strict censorship laws (amongst other things), any production who wishes to tour there is going to have to abide by it.  And as far as I’m aware nudity just isn’t done on stage or screen in Asia, so respecting someone’s cultural sensibilities when you are a guest in their country comes into play too.  If the RSC wanted to keep the nudity in then they would have had to live with an R18 rating which they obviously don’t want, and are willing to change so they can get that all important school Shakespeare dollar.

At the same time when faced with censorship of any sort the key is to find another way to communicate what you want – become a smarter artist, be subversive, don’t be subversive, but there will always be a way to get your message through.  I strongly disagree with her sentiment that “if the divestment can be cut so easily, perhaps it’s not really integral to the production and maybe shouldn’t be there at all”, as sometimes censorship pushes us as practitioners to be more creative in our communication, we don’t know that somethings can be cut until they have to be and sometimes we don’t find better ways of doing a scene (whether “better” is the case in the Nunn Lear or not I don’t know) until we are forced too.  A production on stage on opening night or opening season is not the end of the creative process.

Moya Bannerman            posted 3 Jul 2007, 12:07 PM

Interesting. So when the once regally-clad King Lear is totally naked, we might see him as fully exposed and vulnerable (yet free of all encumbrances). And when he retains his undies, we might sense he is retaining a shred of dignity despite being thoroughly exposed and vulnerable (and almost free of all encumbrances). Unless, of course, a man with todger intact is seen by some as ipso facto encumbered.

David Aston        posted 22 Aug 2007, 12:24 AM / edited 22 Aug 2007, 02:36 PM

I really can’t believe it: a standing ovation for the actors of the Royal Shakepeare Company’s performance of King Lear. I must be from another planet.  Expensive seats, packed house, deadly theatre.

And so unmoving.  How could all those rich production values create such an arid world? Where was the ensemble? Very disappointing.

Moya Bannerman            posted 22 Aug 2007, 12:34 PM

The ensemble, or some sense of one, is in The Seagull.  Maybe they should re-brand as the Royal Chekhov Company.  My feeling in Wellington was that the standing ovation was for Sir Ian McKellen rather than the whole company.  There is a definite sense of a class system operating in King Lear – people hanging back to let the star shine. Ridiculous. Especially since that doesn’t happen in The Seagull, except of course for the copious extras who presumably understudy the speaking parts.

It’s been said already and bears repeating:  those who paid megabucks to see the RSC and do not go NZ professional theatre in their home towns (at a fraction of the cost) are ripping themselves off blind. Our professional practitioners stand up very well against these exotic imports, especially when your interest is in the play itself rather than the personalities performing it.

Jan McLean         posted 22 Aug 2007, 06:09 PM

I am in total agreement with the sentiments posted to this topic in recent days – I can salve my conscience about spending megabucks on a seat by stating that it was the 10th production I’ve seen in Wellington this year, and far from the best.  What concerned me more than the sycophantic audience response to the performances – McKellan included – was the fact that having begun the play by playing for laughter at every possible moment, the cast had not the ability to pull the production around into pathos nor did the majority of the audience know when it was appropriate to laugh – certainly not at one of the most poignant moments in the play when Lear, thinking he has heard Cordelia murmur, comments about the quality of her voice.  Or was I the only one to be so embarrassed?  Are we theatre-goers now reduced to needing humour in everything?  Not all RSC productions are as inconsistent as this one – in 2004 I was lucky enough to see Corin Redgrave in the title role which (apart from the thunder and lightning) was an entirely different experience in its towering examination of human foibles.

John Smythe      posted 22 Aug 2007, 09:50 PM

Here is a link to Alexander Bisley’s interviews with Sir Ian McKellen and Romala Garai, on The Lumiere Reader.

Tamati Patuwai                 posted 7 Sep 2007, 12:38 PM

Q: Did Lear have a censorship rating here in NZ? If not, why not? Full blown nudity does justify for some sort of rating doesn’t it?

Aaron Alexander              posted 7 Sep 2007, 02:45 PM / edited 7 Sep 2007, 04:49 PM

My understanding is nudity in theatre presentations is exempt from official censorship, although producers frequently put a ‘contains nudity’ warning on publicity material as a courtesy/enticement.

The exception to this is where there is an erect penis involved.

(There’s a sentence I never imagined I’d be using!)

Moya Bannerman            posted 7 Sep 2007, 04:57 PM

Now there’s an interesting acting challenge: erection on demand (inviting critic cracks like “a wooden performance”).  Of course if it was fake – like the one Des Kelly used in Stuart McKenzie’s TRUE at Bats many years ago – is that deserving of a warning? We don’t warn about fake murder on stage as a rule.

Thomas LaHood                posted 7 Sep 2007, 05:13 PM

Erections on demand, probably only a challenge for older performers…

Aaron Alexander              posted 7 Sep 2007, 05:31 PM

Brings to mind my good friend Mr T Leach lying nude on the cold Silo concrete being manipulated…

…no fun.

Freya     posted 7 Sep 2007, 06:45 PM

My, the quality of the debate has improved dramatically since the pseudonyms were frightened off by the boss’s threat of exposure – eh. (btw I didn’t know that a ‘vocation’ for theatre criticism was possible. ?)

Paul McLaughlin               posted 8 Sep 2007, 12:15 AM

I’m not sure if this is an improvement in the debate, Freya, Aaron … manipulating a naked T. Leach?

– I’m still in counselling over the infamous final naked class at Toi Whakaari in ’96…

Freya     posted 8 Sep 2007, 01:51 PM

Yup. Theatre’s dead.

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