King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Max Webster, with Michael Pennington, Theatre Royal, Brighton, Tuesday, 3rd May, 7.45pm.
The programme for this play has an excerpt from a history book, 1606, The Year of Lear, by James Shapiro (an American academic by the way) which provides lots of real detail about London life in the year during which, apparently, Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. This new book attempts to replicate the success of an earlier book by Shapiro, 1599, the year Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. 1606 is only glancingly about Shakespeare, though it does go on and on about the plays. It's really a book about the gunpowder plot and its aftermath. And some of the details which Shapiro uncovers make a very strong case for Shakespeare's keeping an extremely low profile. This he seems to have done. Apart from, perhaps, living in the bosom of a family of French Protestants, presumably as far away as possible from his Catholic friends and family (his elder daughter was refusing Anglican communion at the time), we don't know much. (1599 was a much more entertaining read.)
Matters historical led me to think of my own history, specifically a book I read over 30 years ago, The Empty Space by Peter Brook, a quondam bible for all those who were obsessed both by the theatre and by the sense that by being too young for the sixties had had their life and their future unutterably destroyed. Peter Brook is still going of course, but there is much in that book that belongs to the hippie revolution, the years of love and peace.
Sure enough, there was a quote, which I'd only vaguely remembered: 'When I (this is Peter Brook speaking) hear a director speaking glibly of serving the author, of letting a play speak for itself, my suspicions are aroused, because this is the hardest job of all. If you just let a play speak, it may not make a sound.'
King Lear, I am sad to report, didn't make a sound. Not one single sound.
Why was this? I will try to guess.
The quote is from the first chapter of The Empty Space, entitled The Deadly Theatre. (Other chapters cover Holy, Rough and Immediate Theatre.) In this chapter, Brook keeps referring to the past, to the way theatrical tradition, whether in France or China or England, wields a dead hand over the present. This being the sixties, he speaks approvingly of how energetic, modern and relevant the film industry is in comparison. I don't think he would draw that conclusion today.
Film is, by definition, in the past. As is photography. As soon as you take a picture, it's in the past.
Theatre is, by definition, in the future. It's the next line, the next scene, the next performance that counts. That's why theatre is important and relevant. The past is dead and gone. We're here to see and experience the future.
But the past is seductive. It's certainty, it's reputation, it's ego.
I'm reminded of a television play on the BBC recently, The Dresser, stuffed with cinema stars trying to squeeze themselves into the small screen, without much success. Their fat bits were spilling out of their costumes in all sorts of unattractive ways, metaphorically speaking.
The theatre is a very cruel place. There is no past. It's gone.
Michael Pennington, as Lear, was reenacting a performance which existed only in his past, in his memory. Sadly, for the rest of the cast, this was not a performance they were able to relate to or engage with.
A script of a play, no matter who it's by, is just a residue, or seed, or both, of a performance. That performance is all about what happens next, the next idea, the next action, the next conflict. The language of the theatre is the language of the future, the language of what happens next.
All we the audience care about is 'what happens next?' He gives his kingdom to his daughters, what happens next? He takes his clothes off in the storm, what happens next? We want it to be interesting and new. We want the future now! And we want it to matter to those who are involved.
Most of all we want to believe it's happening for the first time, that it's new minted especially for us. We are the only ones who will experience this particular performance, that this is our future and belongs to no one else.
There are details we can disagree about - I've always thought that Cordelia and the fool should be the same actor. The fool is young, his jokes are the jokes of child, the real comic role is Kent. (James Shapiro would demur.) But this is irrelevant to the larger issue of the past versus the future.
Peter Brook suggests, in that same chapter, that the critics are the real culprits when it comes to deadly theatre. But a review, like a photo, is already in the past. It is already irrelevant. Only theatre has the capacity to be always new, always in the future. Always relevant.