King Lear, Queen Margaret, Lysistrata

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on KING LEAR and QUEEN MARGARET at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, and LYSISTRATA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 1.7.10
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King Lear  3 stars ***
Queen Margaret   3 stars ***
Lysistrata  3 stars ***

IT’S A MEASURE OF SHAKESPEARE’S THRILLING power, as a playwright, that his unique welding of poetry and action still sometimes achieves a level of insight that can shock audiences into silent attention; and nowhere is that more true than in his handling of family relationships.  In our post-religious times, here in Britain, the family is the one area of life that both people and politicians still tend to regard as sacred, or in some way sacrosanct.

Yet we all know, with another part of our minds, that family relationships are also unchosen and complex, full of rivalry,  exploitation, and a raw impulse to use others to meet our own most basic needs; selfless love is not the only emotion in play.   And no playwright exposes that unsettling mixture of light and shade, within the family, more clearly than Shakespeare.  When King Lear, at the start of his tragic decline, divides his kingdom between his two elder daughters Goneril and Regan, and banishes his youngest, Cordelia, in a fit of fury at her refusal to join their chorus of pious speeches about daughterly love, he is as mad as – say – Leontes, the sexually jealous king in The Winter’s Tale; and what has driven him mad is also a form of jealousy, in the shape of his possessive and doting relationship with Cordelia, whose insistence that she must, one day, love her future husband as much as her father maddens him to the point of self-destruction.

Nor is Shakespeare ever less than clear-eyed about the conflicts over power and inheritance that can divide any family that has wealth or influence to pass on.  Just as Goneril and Regan end up in a vicious conflict over power and sex, so all of his history plays are marked by fratricidal passions, and ferocious battles between those linked by blood, yet divided by greed and ambition.  And although neither production is flawless, Shakespeare’s disturbing insight into the ambiguity of family passions emerges clearly from both of the opening shows in this year’s Bard In The Botanics summer Shakespeare season in Glasgow.

Gordon Barr’s two-and-a-half-hour production of King Lear – staged on a beautiful hillside lawn lit by sunshine as the play begins, and by  flickering braziers as darkness begins to fall – is conventional in style, and slightly uneven in achievement.   Set against a simple, effective backdrop of curved and rusted metal thunder-sheets – which come into their own during the famous storm scene – the production revolves around a raw central performance by George Doherty as Lear,  that is as emotionally touching as it is verbally garbled and unsatisfying.  Nor is he short of some truly impressive support, from Beth Marshall, Nicole Cooper and Camille Marmie as his daughters, and from Stephen Clyde and Alan Steele as Kent and Gloucester, his two most loyal friends, who – together with Cordelia – finally demonstrate for us the both true meaning of love, and its essential unpredictability.

Jennifer Dick’s Queen Margaret, playing in the beautiful Kibble Palace, is a slightly more radical show, a bold effort to encompass in 100 minutes or so the whole story of Henry VI’s wife Queen Margaret, as told across four of Shakespeare’s history plays, from Henry VI to Richard III.  As experiments with Shakespearean material go, this one has limited success.  Dick’s adaptation breaks up the relationship between Shakespeare’s poetry, and the kinetic energy of his drama, in a way that often creates a slightly stiff and static effect.  Its elegant setting, in a vaguely 1940’s world of wartime music and costume, sits uneasily against the dramatic backdrop of a very different kind of war, waged across a much longer time-span.   And Paul Cunningham struggles to achieve a strong differentiation among the three key male characters he plays, including a Richard III who is morally and physically twisted enough, but completely lacks the strange charisma that, in Shakespeare’s drama, makes his character so compelling.

What the play has, though, is a beautiful and infinitely watchable central performance from Sarah Chalcroft as Margaret.  Tied for life to a devoutly pacifist husband who will not fight for his birthright, Margaret takes on “manly” virtues, wins many battles, loses all the men she loves, and finds herself dismissed, in the end, as an unnatural hag.  And although Jennifer Dick’s version is not quite equal to the magnificent story it tells, it sometimes offers a tantalising hint of what might be achieved, with such electrifying material.

If you fancy a stiff shot of gender politics, though, the place to be this week is Oran Mor, where an epic 22-week season rollicks to a close with a new version of Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, by the veteran Wildcat team of David Anderson and David MacLennan.  Written a mere 2500 years ago, this filthy old interlude famously tells of what happens when the women of Greece, led by the bold Lysistrata, withdraw their sexual favours from their menfolk in an effort to persuade them to stop fighting a brutal and pointless war.  At Oran Mor, the serious undertow of the story is almost overwhelmed by hilarity, as a young and  hairy all-male cast – led by Taggart’s Colin McCredie as Lysistrata, and Iain Robertson as her friend Cleonice – romp their way through the story, helped by a smuttily hilarious version full of outrageous phallic humour, gigantic gilded cucumbers, and fine choral effects composed for the occasion by Anderson.  Over MacLennan’s surprise appearance as Cleonice’s giant baby – all huge nappy and glistening moustache – I shall draw a tasteful veil.  But if all the nation’s theatre producers were as willing to send themselves up, while casually producing 35 shows a year on a shoestring, I reckon Scotland would be a more joyful place; and a more creative one, as well.

King Lear at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 10 July, Queen Margaret at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow until 9 July, and Lysistrata at Oran Mor, Glasgow until Saturday, 3 July.

ENDS ENDS

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