The production at the Almeida Theatre of Shakespeare’s King Lear, starring Jonathan Pryce as the foolish and vain old vulgarian King, was sold out.
But I was determined, as obstinate as Lear, to see it – I have 3 daughters myself, although no Kingdom to divide amongst them, and as far as I know, not one of them is evil or debauched – but you never know!
Joseph Frank, the great biographer of Dosteovsky, describes King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov as the world’s two greatest pieces of literature to deal with the theme of the moral consequences of family collapse.
In Lear, the consequences are political, cosmic and personal, but it’s the personal aspect that so moves us, and in the case of this superb production, the audience was left aghast and silent, holding tightly the hands of loved ones or rushing out into the rain to seek the comfort and warmth of strangers in crowded pubs.
Later reflection reveals how exquisitely the play deals with the unthinkable big themes though. I paraphrase here…..
- the Gods are just, and from our pleasant vices form the instruments of our destruction
- Is this the worst? Whilst we can say is this the worst, ‘tis not the worst
- Is this the promised end, or just the image and semblance of it?
At this last, I imagine the politicians peering out from their underground bunkers at the earth they have atomised with their nuclear arsenals, their veins frozen as they realise that they will never kiss again and hear a baby cry – as Lear shouted in his sane madness, we cry when we are born when we realise what a stage of fools we have arrived upon!
Dosteovsky conjures up another and different blend of family breakdown headed up by a debauched and lust deranged father, surrounded by one saintly son, another cool and calculating rationalist who wants to ‘give his ticket back’ and another incontinent lover and drinker willing to throw away everything on the roll of a dice and the chance of a night of lust.
Murder, mayhem, blood, lust – we fear them, of course, but we wonder, we wonder, have we got less of life without them?
Dosteovsky surely didn’t want us to think so, or Shakespeare, but the genius of both is that we cannot find them in their characters or their plots.
They are both ‘polyphonic’ as Bachtin observed of Dosteovsky.
They both feel at home in London too, though separated by a couple of hundred years from each other, as London is still revisiting their themes of love, power, lust and the search for happiness and meaning four hundred years after King Lear was written and a century and a half after Karamazov.
It’s a shame they couldn't have worked together on something, a kind of tale of two countries and two families.
London would stage it, and it would sell out.