Two major shows seen this week - 'Wolf Hall' - the RSC's adaptation of the Hilary Mantel mega-award winning book at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, and Simon Russell Beale's 'King Lear' on the Olivier stage at the National.
Actually to compare the two would be somewhat unhelpful, but I guess the overall impression left is valid - and for me, perhaps unexpectedly, 'Wolf Hall' wins it.
I'll juts mention here there is a SPOILER ALERT later in this blog about something in 'King Lear' - just so you know
The RSC has created a fast-moving, gripping narrative throughline with 'virtual' scene changes, snappy dialogue and an extremely strong ensemble who worked hard from first to last to tell the tale. Cromwell is of course central to everything but the action happens around him, with his controlling touch applied with deftness and calculation. So the show is about the interaction of a group of extremely well-rounded and beautifully defined characters rather than an individual tour-de-force. The Swan Theatre is a fitting environment for it too - intimate and at times a little claustrophobic. And hot!
Ben Miles as Cromwell was (for me) an unexpected choice for what has to be one of the plum roles of the year, but my goodness he is good. He beautifully portrays a man shaped by a cruel and relentless childhood into a tough, quick-witted and increasingly ruthless survivor with a yearning for security. He makes his choices and follows through and although he is never really likeable he is always fascinating. It was a complex and finely drawn characterisation.
As, indeed, were all the characters: there had clearly been a huge amount of thought put into each one, and this was described in the cast's question and answer session after the show - a rare treat and a big thanks to the RSC for putting this on.
We're seeing the second part of the production 'Bring Up the Bodies', next week. Can't wait! If only Stratford was a bit closer...
And so, last night, to 'King Lear'. I don't know whether it's an advantage to know a play very well. For my sins I studied it at A level and during my degree. It kind of helped in the opening to this production. There was a lot of indistinct shouting and even though I know the lines to the first scene backwards I was having trouble following where we were! Thankfully things calmed own and the production, for me, got better and better as it went on.
Sam Mendes has placed the play in a militaristic Eastern-bloc dictatorship and this suited the play well. It gave Lear a clear position as a fading despot and ensured the political elements where readily recognisable to a modern audience. It's a huge stage, the Olivier, and the setting used the vast area well, especially in the storm scenes.
So once we were over a slightly indistinct start the production got the play moving quickly. It isn't one of Shakespeare's shortest so pace is vital.
Beale's portrayal of the descending dementia was quite spellbinding - the scene with blinded Gloucester and his reunion with Cordelia being very moving. Here comes the SPOILER...
Adrian Scarborough as the Fool is superb throughout - a tricky but important role made accessible and central. His death at the hands of a confused Lear was unexpected, violent and deeply unsettling - brilliant piece of thinking and theatre. I wish I had thought of that! (you will, Oscar, you will)...
Tom Brooke as Edgar was splendid - touchingly naive and raw. Other strong performances from Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan and Kate Fleetwood as Goneril and, particularly, from Stanley Townsend as Kent.
But some of the other supporting cast were not so strong and this gave the production a somewhat lumpy feeling. In particular Olivia Vinall as Cordelia seemed to have dusted off 'Shakepearean Lady character B' for the occasion - over declamatory and not much sublety. I was a bit unsure about her as Desdemona in 'Othello' recently and I'm afraid I didn't like this either. Sorry...
So overall, I was left with a feeling that this was a very good King Lear, but perhaps not the definitive Lear I'd been hoping for.
And overall it was the ensemble work in 'Wolf Hall' that left me more satisfied and inspired.