King Lear, Girl X, The Confidant

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on KING LEAR at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, GIRL X at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE CONFIDANT at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 10.3.11
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King Lear 4 stars ****
Girl X 4 stars ****
The Confidant 4 stars ****

HOW DO WE judge a society, as civilised or not? Some say it should be by our attitude to prisoners, or to people we see as strangers. Attitudes to old age and infirmity, though, remain among the sharpest indicators of decency and compassion in any culture. And although we tend to think of the issues surrounding old age as in some ways a modern problem – in Shakespeare’s time, relatively few lived beyond the age of 60 – the great 1606 tragedy King Lear stands as an unforgettable dramatic exploration of the pains and perils of old age; of the risks we run when we withdraw from the business of our lives, and throw ourselves upon the mercy of our loved ones, or of the society around us, to see us safely to the door of death.

Michael Grandage’s Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear – starring the great Derek Jacobi, and playing its only Scottish dates in Glasgow this week – must be one of the least showy, and least ostentatiously inventive, Shakespeare productions ever to have ventured on a UK tour. Staged in a huge, simple box of white-grey planking – sometimes dark and oppressive, sometimes dazzlingly bright, sometimes pierced like a prison cell by sharp beams of light – it adopts a conventional voice, costume and style, which could make for tedium, and a dutiful repetition of a renowned text.

Given the excellence of the cast, though – their total understanding of the text, and the intensely focussed quality of the acting – what emerges instead is an astonishingly gripping three-hour narrative of an old man’s shocking betrayal by the two daughters who claimed to love him, of his own foolish and petulant rejection of the third daughter who truly does care for him, and of his gradual slide into madness and confusion, illuminated by heartbreaking moments of clarity, wisdom, and redemption.

Jacobi’s Lear plays up the actorly qualities of the old king, his self-dramatisation, self-pity and foolishness; sometimes, there’s a shade too much melodramatic whispering. His rage, though, is even more impressive than his madness, heart-stopping in its energy, and its profound emotional reality. And although he is surrounded by fine and even flawless performances – including Pippa Bennett-Warner’s perfect Cordelia, Gina McKee’s frightening Goneril, and Philip Jesson’s blind and stumbling Gloucester – the attention of this fine production never wavers from the heart and soul of this great play; which lies in one old man’s final journey towards acceptance of himself, and of the love of those who have stood by him, even at the height of the storm.

In terms of theatrical idiom, Pol Heyvaert and Robert Softley’s Girl X, staged as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Reveal season of new work, could hardly be more different from a mighty drama like King Lear. Set in a space that is part concrete city underpass and part computer screen, Girl X is not exactly a drama but a staged debate, instigated by disabled actor Robert Softley, about the real-life case of Girl X, a severely mentally and physically disabled 11-year-old in England, whose parents applied for – and got – permission to have her sexual organs removed, and to have her treated with hormones, so that she would remain small and child-like, with a body that matched her mental state.

For 70 minutes, from his wheelchair, Softley argues over the Girl X case with a collective second character, known as “The Choir”; a group of 16 people drawn from community performance groups in Glasgow who – in fascinating style – run the gamut of public attitudes to disability, showing conventional “sympathy” one minute, railing against “political correctness” and high disability benefits the next. As theatre, Girl X sometimes falters; as a dramatised chatroom conversation, it can be repetitive, and sometimes plain dull.

There are moments, though, when in classic Pol Heyvaert style, this show memorably strips the mask from our society, to reveal the mean-minded ugliness of the attitudes that underpin much of our popular culture; and the strange paradox that we continually congratulate ourselves on being much “nicer” to elderly and disabled people than society ever was in Shakespeare’s day, while at the same time resenting the cost of that “niceness”, in a way that places us in exactly the same category as Lear’s wicked daughters – women who acknowledge some kind of duty to their old father, but then self-righteously resent every penny it costs them.

If attitudes to the old and disabled sometimes strip the mask from a society, then so does the crisis of revolution; and with a mighty struggle for political change sweeping the Arab world, this week’s final Latin American lunchtime play at Oran Mor, by the Venezuelan Gilberto Pinto, comes as a timely reminder that in the very act of achieving victory, revolutions often betray their highest principles. In The Confidant, a middle-aged ex-freedom-fighter called Joe comes home to his wife Carmen, after a night spent celebrating the success of the revolution.

Carmen, though, has her suspicions about the role Joe played in the revolutionary movement; and as she confronts him, she begins to expose the selfishness, the sexism and the bullying attitudes that underpin his apparently radical politics. Sacha Kyle’s Glasgow-inflected production of Alan Bissett’s version of the text is anything but subtle, the acting style loud and garish. In the end, though, this brief 40-minute play packs a huge punch; and reminds us that in the great struggle between good and evil, the personal is always political, and that declaring ourselves on the side of the angels is an empty gesture, unless we also have the courage to live by the principles we say we embrace.

King Lear at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, until Saturday. Girl X at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sunday, and at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 16-19 March. The Confidant at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 15-19 March.

ENDS ENDS

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