Swellboy on… going to the theatre

A visit to the theatre is always such a drama

Image: Brijesh Patel

Alas I conform to the London cliché of lauding life in the capital and celebrating its cultural amenities, while seldom making use of them. Of course, I am too involved in my highly important work: there is always a Swiss watch factory that needs visiting or a Parisian aesthete who needs interviewing – and if it is not that, then I have to zoom over to New York to check that the Carlyle is still running smoothly or drop into Marbella to ensure that the sun is shining. Add to that the vital business of lying in bed early on a Saturday morning trying to do my best to force myself back to sleep so that I can enjoy a lie-in, before deciding to cut my losses and head into the West End to smoke a cigar, and you can imagine why I seldom get to the playhouse.

Indeed I find it a source of constant wonder that anyone living in London finds time to go to the theatre, and yet go they must, otherwise restaurants would not offer the option of high tea disguised as a “pre-theatre” menu, served while tardy lunchers are still lingering over their coffee. As a result I feel somewhat culturally inadequate whenever anyone talks to me about what they have seen on stage recently and all I can do is say that I have read the reviews.

Sometimes this cultural inertia goads me, or rather my wife, into action: booking theatre tickets months, or even in one case that I recall, years in advance. Most recently we decided that it would be a good idea to introduce our children to Shakespeare and having ascertained that Derek Jacobi was playing Lear in the charming late-Victorian surroundings of Richmond Theatre we made our booking.

I must admit to misgivings. Whichever way you look at it, this is not one of the Bard’s most upbeat plays: even Dr Pangloss would have a problem putting a positive spin on this tale of a cantankerous old codger spurned by his kids; after he gives them their inheritance before he dies, it all goes horribly wrong, with all the usual family squabbles and fallout: foreign invasion, Tarantino-esque torture and the obligatory character in a ludicrous disguise, after which almost everybody dies unhappily ever after. I suppose the moral is that it does not pay to try and beat inheritance tax by letting your children have their legacy in advance.


I last saw King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon in the early 1980s, with, if memory serves (not always the case), Tony Sher and Michael Gambon. I have a dim memory of the storm sequence, the naughty night to swim in, being enacted atop a hydraulic platform that rose out of the stage.

Shakespeare production styles are of course as much a matter of fashion as anything. In the early 1970s it would have probably been performed on a vaguely futuristic set by actors wearing Pierre Cardin-inspired tracksuits. More recently the action would have been relocated to some period in the first half of the 20th century; say Edwardian England or Europe in the 1930s. Today the vogue is more minimalist. I saw and enjoyed Jude Law’s Hamlet, which moved at blistering pace, with next to no set-changing and scenes eliding with a swiftness that barely allowed one to end before the actors of the ensuing passage were on stage. King Lear was much the same, which is fine if you are vaguely familiar with the general gist of the plot and having studied the play as a teenager I was surprised at how much of it I remembered.

However, if you are in early adolescence and subject to the cultural stimuli of the Sony Playstation 3 and the iPad, I can imagine that it is a bit hard to follow. Moreover, one of my sons had clearly been anticipating a richer, more sumptuous stage and he felt particularly short-changed when the script seemed to promise a scene of feasting and revelry that failed to materialise.

I have to say that it was oddly reassuring being reunited with something that I had once been intimate with. My children, however, were less impressed; although they sat through it very politely, their reaction reminded me of a joke cracked by Krusty the Clown in The Simpsons who, during a comedy routine, asks, “How do you make the King Lear?” answering, “Put the Queen in a bikini.” As the audience groans, Krusty mutters something like “Tough crowd – they’re booing Shakespeare.”


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