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nearly lear, susanna hamnett

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Old 13th Oct 2010, 12:41   #1
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Default Nearly Lear

Nearly Lear is a one-woman show originating in Canada and in its two-hour length the ‘one woman’ carries off seven characters, much of the dialogue and all of the deaths (bar one) from Shakespeare’s play. She combines audience interaction, several different accents, sometimes at high speeds, high foolery from the Fool and high pathos too, culminating in a flickering closing film projected onto the stage set to Purcell’s Dido’s Lament and guaranteed to put several lumps in the throat.

In short, for many of the above reasons, it is not my kind of thing at all but yes, I was one of those who needed the tissues which had been cast out to the audience at the start of the play. Susanna Hamnett, bearing two of the names of Shakespeare’s children, finds her way into the narrative via the story of the Fool, a Fool who escapes the ‘hanging’ implied in most traditional interpretations of the text. Here the Fool is called Norris, and is not what he seems - like many a Shakespearian character, Norris is actually Noreen, a Scottish girl disguised as a boy, and has been persuaded by her old dad to tell the story from her point of view. It is a cathartic telling, and for all the japery, Noreen’s own relationship with her (presumed now deceased) father is evoked movingly when relating the touching reunion of Lear and Cordelia on Dover beach, she slips into the first person to describe her tender affection for him and Lear replies in the old idiom of her dad.

As a device it works very well but for the fact of what is missed out, in available time and characterisation. The subplot concerning Gloucester and his sons, Edgar and Edmund is omitted, and Edmund’s evil machinations and courtship of the evil sister, Goneril and Regan, is reworked and jointed onto the servant Oswald’s pole-climbing greasiness in a hybrid character, ‘Osmund’. With the minimum of staging - three curtained frames/clothes rails on castors - and sound effects, Hamnett was able to conjure castles, hovels, scenes of torture and torment and closeted plotting and the physical theatre involved in portraying several characters in one scene was both demanding and brilliantly executed.

The gradual descent of Lear into terrible madness and distress has not enough time to render it reasonable or affecting to the audience to “see the king thus reduced”. His child-like humility with his wits lost should evoke deep pathos when he confronts his rejected daughter Cordelia, but Hamnett didn’t quite present this sharp contrast with his previous fatherly blustering and reminded us instead of how he used to dance with his daughter in her younger days. With the reduction of lines from the text, the complex motivations and personalities of Shakespeare took on the hue of stock characters. The blinding of Gloucester, for his assistance of Lear, was undercut by comic effects that were perhaps the most unnecessary.

It is hard to say whether a “mischievous re-telling” of (to me ) the most tragic of Shakespeare’s plays is a plausible thing. The Fool’s point of view and observations bring its own sense of doom and emotion, and whilst Hamnett has her most recent work in the clowning sphere, the tragic-comic moments don’t always work. However, the story is sufficiently re-told to deliver its powerful ending appropriately off-stage in this play. Witnessing the depth of parental and filial love of both Norris (and her dad) and the King and his daughter, this is elevated by the short final film of Hamnett’s husband and young daughter playing childish games in woodland meadows, crowned with twisted vines before walking hand-in-hand together down the long path into the sunset.
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