Thursday, 3 September 2009

Unfolding King Lear A Model

I’m struggling to remember the last time a show as small as this, in a venue this obscure, gathered such a rapid buzz about it. From one comment left by Chris Goode on Lyn Gardner’s What to See This Week blog (“mind-stretching, disorienting, harrowing, exhilarating”), to Lyn’s subsequent Twitter report (“Terrifying, painful and utterly compelling”) and then by word of mouth by friends and Facebook (“you might want to keep tomorrow clear, and just reassemble yourself piece by piece”) by the time I entered the tiny space in the Vault (under St Augustine’s, accessed by an easily overlooked side street off ) I was surprised that there wasn’t a queue round the block with everyone who’s anyone in the avant garde lining up for returns. So it’s safe to say I had quite high expectations.

High expectations are not a useful thing to go into a theatre with. Particularly if they are based purely on sense impressions. While I’d heard a lot about how Unfolding King Lear A Model had made other people feel, I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was, what happened, how it happened, or why it left such apparently profound impressions on them. This isn’t a good thing either. Not least, because I’m quite resistant to people trying to disorientate, harrow and terrify me. Least of all in an obvious or overt way, which seemed to be the implication. “Here is a piece that sets out to be upsetting” was what I had inferred.

Not knowing how this process was to be conducted, I was apprehensive to say the least to see that the “set” for UKLAM consisted mostly of a high wooden bench strewn with various sinister-looking apparatus. As I’ve said a thousand times, I’m *very* squeamish. I also know that there’s plenty in King Lear that can be made very upsetting indeed.

So, what is Unfolding King Lear A Model (I think that’s the correct capitalisation. The slightly wonky, wrong-looking capital ‘A’ certainly seems in keeping with the feel of the piece)? It’s a one man show. Quite literally. As well as being the sole performer, Jeremy Hardingham also operates his own distinctly lo-fi lighting and presses the buttons on his own sound desk.

[apologies if I get this next bit slightly wrong] It either opens with Hardingham simply dressed in grubby neutral-coloured top and trousers or enrobed and wrapped in a chain wearing a small slate chalkboard. Then, depending whether he started off wearing the robe or not, he either takes it off and puts it back on, or puts it on for the first time. He does this again later. The space remains dimly lit, mostly by spill from the two lights glaring into the faces of the small audience. There’s some disorientating white noise playing in the background.

The more I write this review, the more uncertain I become as to the details and the order in which they occurred.

Hardingham brutally wraps gaffa tape round the lower half of his head, and then half stabs, half cuts a hole for his mouth using a pair of scissors. Although not actually self-harm, but it is deeply uncomfortable to watch. He paints his face white, takes off his hat, fills it with chalk dust and replaces it. He opens an envelope with the number 1 marked on it, takes out a sheaf of papers and begins to read.

His voice is a surprise: full-on orotund RSC English. The disjuncture between his now hellish appearance – his eyes an angry, irritated red peering out of a chalky, funereal mask – and this voice is quite startling. What he’s saying momentarily falls by the wayside. It soon becomes clear that the words are cut and pasted from King Lear. From Act One of King Lear, in fact. The sheaf of papers from this first envelope is reassuringly slender – the show only runs for an hour after all – so we settle, unsettled, to take in this bizarre, painful-looking spectacle.

At the same time the mind does a fair bit of racing. You’re cross-referencing the snippets of speech. Who says that? Is it all Lear? Is he doing different voices? Yes he is. Do the different voices relate to different characters? Possibly. I’m still struggling with the RSCness of the accents. Also, slightly, with the apparent linearity – although I’m only guessing at that. It starts fairly close to the beginning with a flurry of “Nothings” sounding like vocal epilepsy. What follows could be in virtually any order at all. It’s not that the speech is garbled – much of it is clear as a bell – but the way it’s decontextualised, shredded and regurgitated - sometimes at speed, sometimes mumbled, sometimes with all the poetic gusto of the actor-manager that renders much of it down to jarring, fragmentary noise pierced by shards of words.

Vocally, Hardingham turns out to be something of a wizard. He skips from voice to voice, line by line, sounding like a manically spliced recording of King Lear from the mid-sixties – there’s a lot of that heightened RP, old-school posh. There are touches of, say, Gielgud or Richardson mixed occasionally with that spooky, talking-backwards voice frequently favoured by David Lynch. It’s a stunning performance but it’s often hard to discern why it is how it is.

While doing this, Hardingham potters about his work-bench, threatening it with a hammer here, cajoling a metronome on it there. All similarly unsettling, but mapping only infrequently onto something that concretely marries to the text being spoken. The real departure from this comes in Act Three, which is mostly given over to Gloucester’s blinding. In this, “Gloucester” is “played” (can we just assume that any traditional words to do with stagecraft have scare marks round them from now on?) by a bare lightbulb clipped onto a mirror lent against the side of the space’s small archway-cum-mini-proscenium. A tape of clanking medieval torture noises, along with recorded speech from the text. This is voiced by Hardingham, I think, who recites along with the recording or engages it in dialogue. He threatens the "Gloucester" with a murderous-looking set of map compasses, before pouring stage blood over the shining bulb. It’s pretty disturbing stuff, as is his increasing playing with an axe, which he taps against the side of his head.

From this point on, the piece seems kind of galvanised by the horror. The pathos of Gloucester’s later suicide attempt, and Lear’s madness in the storm (which may or may not have been the point where Hardingham tries to perform a speech through mouthfuls of Red Bull) both make recognisable, poignant appearances.

The final coup – best not to read if you’re likely to see the show – is, if anything, even more wince-making. At the bit in the sequence where – if this corresponds to the Shakespeare, which I think it does – Lear is presented with Cordelia’s lifeless body, Hardingham eats a handful of salt and tries to do the subsequent speech without being sick. He then went out and was sick. This was proper self-abuse in the service of art. No mucking about here, you could see precisely how unpleasant a time he was having. And it made for just about as piteous spectacle as Lear should be at that point.

I realise over the course of writing this that my reading of what I was looking at has tended to lean toward the hugely literal. I’m interested in where this response comes from. Given Goode’s championing of the performance as poetic text, I found it strange – in view of the way in which it had been cut, shaped and delivered - how hard it was to hear it as the sort of poem concrete you’d imagine it would turn into. Similarly, I was surprised – given the other elements of dramaturgy present in the staging – that the text itself still ran forwards. Coupled with the RSC voices it made the piece seem strangely tamed, still accepting Shakespeare’s chronology of the text.

The piece also does little to signpost any intended effect. It’s got King Lear in the title (and as its source), so it seems fair to view it in the light of the play and as a commentary on it. But precisely what that comment is is never made clear. None of this is intended as a criticism, but as an observation. However, having gotten over my surprise at the more mainstream elements of the performance, I did find it curiously difficult to settle into a rhythm through which I could absorb it. Sure, of course this is a rhythm in its own right – the piece plays with that aesthetic of continual unease and sudden shift. But, between the disruption and the linearity, I found it hard to attach to anything in particular. Certainly moments – the obvious blinding and salt-in-mouth bits – have stayed with me, but on the whole I found the constant buffeting made it near-impossible to get close enough to the piece to find it actually upsetting or troubling. Yes, it contained troubling images, but, for me, they didn’t attach to anything enough to get under my skin. Other elements distracted from- rather than added to-. Of course the interplay of these parts was fascinating in itself, but in a far more cold, intellectual way than advance word had led me to expect.

In many ways, I feel I kind of failed the piece, rather than that the piece failed me or simply “failed”. Like taking a running jump at a high hurdle and not quite clearing the bar somehow. I’m fascinated to know how and why the piece clearly operated on some at a far deeper level, though.

Comments more than gratefully received.


Tommy said...

Barring the last paragraph, I couldn't disagree with you more. However,I don't know why...

Anonymous said...

This blog post is an admirably honest struggle to find adequate vocabulary for a new phenomenon. Now that theatre has moved beyond the traditional cosy winks offered by mild frame-breaking, the visceral responses commanded by stagings such as this one are, arguably, not meant to be embraced without significant personal discomfiture. It sounds like your barriers were up for Internal, and a bit of ironic distance spared you your UKLAM gut-wrenching and nerve-jarring, albeit in the end you felt some of the means deployed to produce those effects were cheap/baffling. How many (if any?) of the UKLAM audience members broadly shared your ultimate evaluation of the performance? Audience fragmentation might perhaps be the aim here, rather than unifying/universality (which seems to exercise a more powerful grasp on you)?

Anonymous said...

The previous comment describes this account of Unfolding king lear a model as an ‘admirably honest struggle to find adequate vocabulary for a new phenomenon’, but there’s not much struggling going on in Haydon’s prose – the quasi-redescription is a mild-mannered shrug which shies from working to capture how the piece conjures up in its listeners the impression that they are witnessing a ‘new phenomenon’ when they are hearing an old Shakespeherian rag. The comment I heard from one audience member after the performance : ‘That was the worst play I’ve ever seen’ is (in an obscure way) closer in spirit to the practice of the performance than politely tepid bafflement, as Unfolding king lear a model plays at worsting a play and takes as its inspiration a play which toys with the word ‘worst’ like a yo-yo (‘And worse I may be yet. The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This the worst’’). Accounts of this piece of work might be more sharply focused if less preoccupied with the question ‘How does this make me feel?’. The work has more compelling relations than ‘old school posh’ (whatever that means) and ‘RSC voices’. Asking what else the work relates to suggests how the piece, like other monodramas or monopolylogues, takes as part of its subject the personation of relations (between, say, the voices or figments of a script we sometimes call characters, between the various different texts that make up what we call King Lear, between a solitary performer and the curiously inter-conscious unit that is an audience). Impersonation can be comic or menacing, and one person possessed of all the voices in a play can also seem possessed by them, which might tell us something about the strange act of reading a play, or the strange fact of acting like a person. The artist chose to name his work ‘a model’ which could suggest the inflated consciousness of a work swollenly believing itself to be an exemplar, or it could be tenderly diminutive, and should mean roughly both, as from its source and in its practice this work tangles hubris and fragility, but the shivers of gentleness are overlooked in accounts only keen to amplify the performer’s salt-eating bravado. But perhaps the most disappointing prejudice in this piece is in the phrase ‘a far more cold, intellectual way’. One aspect modelled by the work is William Empson’s insight that the ‘mind is complex and ill-connected like an audience, and it is as surprising in the one case as the other that a sort of unity can be produced by a play’ - when something is ‘intellectual’, in the sense that it is apprehended by the mind and requires an exercise of understanding, from my experience, it’s pretty warm.

Anonymous said...

I know this review was quite a few months ago and admittedly I have not seen this play which may disqualify me from commenting. However reading the review, it strikes a familiar cord.

Having witnessed earlier works of Mr. Hardingham's I would say the feeling you came away with from watching this "version" of King Lear -both the fascination and repulsion towards the imagery followed by the disconnectedness to the performance itself and inability to make sense of what was performed - is classic Jeremy both wondrous and lacking.

Everything Jeremy does is filtered through his very personal way of interacting with theatre and the world at large. My guess is this rendition is not a derivative of "King Leah" or even an interpretation.

It is rather: Jeremy Hardingham as King Leah.

Unlike most actors who brings their interpretation of the text into the character -Jeremy brings himself.

If the author of the review ever returns to thinking about this "play" I would suggest contextualizing it in terms of a "one man play" or "performance art."

It is most likely not a dissection or reformulation of a classic text, or Shakespeare speaking through a "new phenomenon."

What it is is an energetic and tortured performer's attempt of speaking his anguish through the words of Shakespeare.