Monday, February 23, 2015

'King Lear' at the Peckham Asylum, 22nd February 2015

The chapel at the old Peckham Asylum is the most atmospheric performance space I've seen in a very long time. Founded in 1827, it sat in the centre of an almshouse for elderly Victorian Peckhamites. Then, in 1941 the Nazis did some unwanted remodelling when they chucked an incendiary bomb through the roof. The resulting blaze scorchied the walls clean of decoration and left the building an exposed, roofless shell. Miraculously the stained-glass windows survived, one of the last eerie echoes of past opulence.

For half a century or so the ruins decayed: plaster peeling from the walls, rain staining the remaining stone busts, the biblical scenes in the windows gradually blackening with London pollution. Now it's repurposed as an art/events space, the blasted surroundings impressively evocative of faded religions, forgotten dreams and failed empires.

All this makes the asylum the perfect place to stage King Lear. Shakespeare's unravelling ruler finding his perfect reflection in the ruined space. Traverse staging opens up the nave of the church, allowing the actors to move freely around us, variously seeking refuge in the remains of the chancel and change costume behind crumbling walls. Performing Shakespeare in 'found' surroundings is hardly a new idea in theatre but it remains an effective one. In the confines of parochial theatres, walls draped in velvet and bums pressed into plush seats, the prose can sound stuffy and establishment. 

Not here. With the winter wind murmuring around the walls the sensation is that we're peering into some time-dislocated court rather than watching actors on a stage. Shakespeare's language finds a natural ally in the architecture, making the iambic pentameter weirdly contemporary. The costumes and aesthetic are pitch-perfect too; though dressed in quasi-medieval clothes there's a subtle touch of modernity - for example Lear himself wears scruffy military olives. If you squint you can imagine you're watching some A Canticle for Leibowitz-like future society, thrown back to feudal serfdom by an apocalyptic war and scratching out lives in the crumbling remains of our present.

At the centre of all this, John McEnery's Lear is a formidable, forthright yet faintly depressing presence. He's a man far from his prime, yet rages furiously against the dying of the light. Hints to his past power lie in the instinctive deference shown to him in the early scenes, but as we proceed through the story he appears to shrink before our eyes, his limbs and posture gradually curling inwards like a dying spider. Ferocious orders slowly become barks of confusion and then madness as his mind collapses. 

There's a touch of dementia to this Lear, signified by other characters feeding him the occasional line and his later brandishing of the script and reading his lines from it. I've got mixed feelings about how effective this. On one hand it's a clever psychological symbol of madness; that Lear feels his words are proscribed, that he senses his fate is sealed and has some recognition of his existence as a tragic dramatic character. On the other it often limits McEnery's performance, forcing him to fuss with a book throughout his scenes. An iffy touch and arguably an unnecessary one given that we can gather all we need to know about Lear's character through intonation, body language and action.

John McEnery's as King Lear.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves similarly well, confidently tackling the text in a clear, forthright manner. But there is one major criticism that I cannot get around. For the entirety of the show I was practically frozen solid. These beautiful surroundings have one flaw; the building is unheated and uninsulated. Upon exhalation you see your breath hang in the air in front of you, the concrete floor greedily sucks in body heat and the odd icy draft winds its way down your back.

Unaware of this, and having headed straight from work, I was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a thin coat. After about ten minutes I was seriously uncomfortable. By half an hour I was shivering uncontrollably. By an hour and a half in (even after the ten minute interval) my feet had gone completely numb. Other members of the audience appeared also chilly, though were wrapped in blankets, polar wear and thick downy coats. One woman even appeared to have a hot water bottle inside her outfit. 

That I was freezing cold throughout is a banal criticism, but it meant I didn't enjoy the play half as much as I'd have liked to. Towards the end of a punishing three hours my body was involuntarily shaking, I was frustrated that these characters weren't dying off fast enough and was silently cursing Shakespeare for being so damn wordy. The only way I could stave off this unhappiness was sympathy for the actors performing in this, especially for Ludovic Hughes (who spends large portions of the show in his underwear). If I'm in pain god knows how he copes.

This is an effective production in a beautiful setting but some warning needs to be given to the audience in advance that it's going to be this goddamn cold. Even the provision of a few more heaters might have made the overall experience less physically miserable.


King Lear is at the Peckham Asylum until 5th March 2014. Tickets here.

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