Can a theatrical production be over-designed? My answer to that question is an emphatic 'yes' after seeing David Farr's version of King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Courtyard theatre. My irritation at the antics of 'look-at-me-aren't-I-clever' theatrical designers should perhaps be aimed at the directors who commission and encourage them. So perhaps I'm wrong in wanting to see designer Jon Bausor ducked in the River Avon for the things that annoyed me so much on Tuesday night.
My annoyance is increased by the fact that in many ways this is a superb production of Shakespeare's greatest and most difficult play. Greg Hicks excels as Lear at the head of a very strong cast. If there is one actor who makes the journey to Stratford worthwhile, it's the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter as the Fool. Dressed in doublet and hose and a giant fool's cap with bells, Hunter uses her unique physical skills and her diminutive stature to suggest a puppet or a Pinocchio doll, limbs flapping at impossible angles. There are other standout performances from Tunji Kasim as Edmund and Geoffrey Freshwater as Gloucester.
So why am I so irritated? For some reason, this production has half the cast wearing what appears to be World War One costume and half in traditional Dark Ages woad-and-blankets. It's an absurd piece of post-modernist silliness, which reaches its climax when Lear is nursed back to health by a medical team who seem to have strayed in from the Battle of the Somme. Men with swords face up to other men dressed as French poilus. One can use any place or period for Shakespeare, but this kind of muddle just betrays a lack of confidence in the text. Shakespeare knew what he was doing and created his own visual high points in the play, notably the blinding of Gloucester. These key moments lose their force when they have to compete with extraneous baggage, created for no apparent reason. Part of the problem is that the RSC's boasts backstage workshops whose skills and resources are second to none. Does the director want an industrial grunge setting with crackling and fizzing electrics and a set that collapses halfway through the play? Of course he can have it. Would he like steel girders hanging at crazy angles? A band of musicians playing behind a panel of dirty broken planes of glass above the stage? Of course, the director can have anything he likes in Stratford, but does the play really need all this? No, it doesn't. When the disguised Kent is placed in the stocks, the machine of punishment has to be a complicated affair involving steel chains and pulleys, but the dramatic effect is nil. Surrounded by all this technical tomfoolery, the cast at times struggle to be seen and heard.