Pete Postlethwaite and Amanda Hale in King LearThe Young Vic is an exciting sort of place with a wealthy, sensual bustle to it. The lighting in the bar is of the kind that a friend once told me was “dark, so that everyone looks beautiful.” I was there, alone, to see Pete Postlethwaite in a new production of King Lear, which opened in Liverpool last year to a rare unison of disapproval. But first I would need a ticket.

Turning up on the night to a sold-out show is a time-honoured tradition of theatre-going and if you are alone it usually works. The house manager waits until the last possible moment before the play begins and then announces “FIVE!” or however many empty seats there are. You already have your money in your hand, counted out, because there is no time to spare. You smile gratefully, with real warmth and meaning, to the cashier, snatch your ticket precisely and bound up the stairs two at a time to the theatre’s top-row redoubt, a drafty place where bats might live. You nestle there, and the play begins.


King Lear is about a vain old king on the downslope. He is a little like Larry David. He jumps to conclusions, he’s unaware of the number of people he is constantly offending, and he somehow manages to botch every decision he makes. Whatever the worst-case scenario is, that’s what happens. Which includes going mad.

But like many curmudgeons there’s something endearing about Lear, and Postlethwaite carries all this off. He doesn’t have the kind of cold authority that Ian McKellen recently brought to the part but with his craggy face and winsome self-deprecation he’d make at least as good of a Gandalf.

Cordelia is played mumblecore style by Amanda Hale – inexplicably given good notices by the same critics who panned the production in toto. She was almost completely inaudible up in my aerie and provided no foothold, no clue as to why she refused to go along with her sisters’ bullshit flattery of Lear, their father. She trembles when she talks, as if in great pain, and barely looks at anyone else on the stage. I suppose she thinks this is enough to communicate some ur-emo gestalt, some essence of Winona Ryder. It isn’t, but even if it were, it doesn’t help us understand her relationship with Lear or her sisters.

The first interval came. I was a little deflated. With a 7:15 start there had been no time for dinner. I packed into the upstairs bar with the rest of them, ordering a beer and a plastic cup full of nuts. Things began to seem better.

The Young Vic has a large upstairs terrace which was filled with smokers and yakkers, and I watched people coming in and out of the large glass door, which never seemed to shut properly. It was a stubborn door. At a play or the movies we often have a momentary, subconscious fantasy that we share the fleetness and precision of the actors we’ve just been seeing. But any illusions of personal grace were humbled upon contact with that door.


Setting Shakespeare in modern times – the director, Rupert Goold, has decided to put everyone in clothes from the early 1980s – is always a dicey proposition. There’s handguns and tracksuits, so why is everyone always communicating via hand-delivered letter? Near the end of the play, as if realizing this, a crucial letter gets delivered as a VHS tape – possibly the only medium more outdated than pen and paper. I knew that Regan would be ripping up this “letter” soon and I wondered how she’d do it. In the event, she bashed the tape against some steps and it took her quite a bit of time before it came apart.

Some things get neat updates here – a “trumpet” turns out to be a car horn – but it casts you out of the fiction, which I wouldn’t mind so much (I love Brecht) except that suspension of disbelief is a great palliative for that scourge of live performance, the winter cough – a symphony of which went up every time the cast threw us an anachronistic bone. If Goold surreptitiously recorded the sound of the audience and made a graph showing the number of coughs for each minute of the play, he’d have an immediately practical map of audience involvement.

When the second interval came I attacked the bar like an animal. I needed something to keep me going. Down below I could see people sitting at tables and having dinner, by candle-light. Had they really come to the Young Vic just to eat? Do people do this? I envied their food and easy lassitude but felt that my mission tonight trumped theirs. Just the pleasures of the mind for me, thank you. Any old brute can feed. I returned to my seat with my second pint of Heineken.

The play resumed.


For all but devotees, Shakespeare’s language lies at the boundary of the comprehensible; when the story is about a man going mad it’s even rougher. (It also doesn’t help to lard on a lot of extra detail, like Special Forces soldiers and expressionist dancing, as this production does.)

So there is a temptation for actors to supplement their speeches and dialogue with what can only be called SSL, or Shakespearean Sign Language. Feeling that the audience needs a bit of help, the SSL actor will make humping movements with his groin if he is making a smutty pun, or he’ll draw a hand across his throat if he feels the threat of the text isn’t clear enough. Even Postlethwaite falls into a bit of this. The only actor to completely shun the “technique” is the fabulous John Shrapnel, a brick wall of a man whose actions and feelings as Gloucester are immensely clear on their own.

As the last act progresses I’m not feeling right. Every small noise upsets me. The coughs, which are raining down furiously now, the creak of the seats; I can’t focus. Cordelia’s return just before the second interval, after one of the longest and most famous absences in all of theatre, was accompanied by loudly amplified helicopter noises and machine-gun toting soldiers. Had she been at war? Was she a returning hostage? I was out of sorts with myself and with the play, and the last act did nothing to clarify what was going on. By this time the stage was a frenzy of barely articulated shouting, and my stomach was rumbling fiercely.

But Postlethwaite’s grief at the end disarms me and stills the coughs in the house. After three hours of bellicose gruffness and willful denial he finds a well of deep reflection inside Lear and we are riveted. If only we could have had some of those moments earlier.

Or at least some chips.