King Lear

6 Dec

King Lear is a brilliant play. And much discussed.

I’ve always been intrigued by Simone Weil’s reading. She saw a tussle between power and honesty, and concluded they were mutually exclusive. The opening sequence certainly prepares us for this view. Regan and Goneril sing their father’s praises in exchange for property. Cordelia is discreet, and is punished for it.

Orwell has a famous essay about Shakespeare and Tolstoy. He reminds us that Tolstoy didn’t especially warm to Shakespeare and had a particular dislike for this play. The story, it would seem, was too close to the bone for the great Russian writer.

I, too, find the story confronting. It’s the tragedy of the great moral gesture.

The play begins with Lear’s grand renunciation. The problem is he can’t maintain the grandness. Leof Kingsford-Smith’s portrayal is wonderfully and heartrendingly accurate. There’s a pomposity to the early Lear. We don’t dislike Lear for it – it’s common enough in older men. In fact, it awakens our pity. As the Fool later says, aren’t we supposed to grow wise before we grow old? Lear hasn’t. Will we?

But like us all, Lear doesn’t understand himself. Having made the grand gesture he wants gratitude, and is devastated when he doesn’t receive it. Who hasn’t been in the same situation? You are kind, and then you’re not acknowledged for that kindness, and so you become bitter. If you choose kindness (or any other moral gesture) perhaps it’s best to stick with it all the way.  (A lonely path, I suspect. But to what vistas might it lead?)


Director Richard Hilliar’s production is moving and engaging. Kingsford-Smith’s marvelous Lear is amply supported by some strong performances. Amy Scott-Smith presents an admirably icy Regan. This is nicely balanced by Hailey McQueen’s Goneril; a beautiful portrait of a small soul, troubled by inklings of self knowledge, but lacking the courage to confront them. Danielle Baynes as Cordelia is dignity and honesty personified.

And, in the world of the play, there’s no place for a character like Cordelia.

Many eighteenth century productions rewrote the final scenes. In their original form they were deemed too painful.

Or were they just too honest?

Is virtue really so little rewarded in this world?

Who knows? For most of us, it’s too hard to stick to, to find out.

And that’s the tragedy.

Veronica Kaye


King Lear

at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, as part of the Sydney Shakespeare Festival with Measure for Measure

until 21 Dec

for program dates

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