Were I a paying customer in the audience of The Madness of King Lear, I would have walked out when Lear - Leofric Kingford-Smith – began his imitation of Rammstein using Shakespearean script, sub-basement growls, and industrial metal backing music. Others left earlier, barely a few minutes into the strained, hoarse King Lear dialogue, others much later as Fool – the show’s director Ira Seidenstein – dances purposelessly around the stage, arms flailing with near-parodic melodrama. It’s an irredeemable production, an insult to the time and expense of the audience, to its subject matter of madness and death, and to Shakespeare’s script.
The two performers play Lear and his Fool, with Seidenstein also swapping roles to occasionally play Lear’s daughters. This is, in theory at least, a perfectly good way of mining King Lear’s most interesting themes – the interplay of foolery and madness, the mocking and mirroring of the powerful – for an hour’s content. However, it’s executed in the worst imaginable way – blustering and soulless, with little artistic direction, often stationary staging and dialogue so oniony it makes your eyes water.
Kingsford-Smith’s style is to read against the rhythm of the text, delivering every line with the most arbitrary of verbal ticks. He often extends vowel sounds as if this were a catalyst for extra emotion; at other times he thumps the lines into a dull staccato. At its best it’s corny, at its worst incomprehensible, while all the time it has the patter of a badly read Victorian audio book. At the start of the hour it’s dull to hear Shakespeare delivered with such flatness, but as King Lear’s mental illness escalates it veers towards offensiveness as the imitation of the ill cannot help but be insensitive.
Seidenstein is racing him to the bottom. He reads the Fool’s line as if from the page, not from the soul, and delivers them like a lecturer picking out a string of quotations. His dancing, of which there is much, is perhaps the show’s worst stylistic feature, clumsy and undemanding like a character’s victory dance on some Windows 95 computer game. Where Kingsford-Smith spits his lines out, Seidenstein seems to breathe them in, keeping them to himself. In doing so he destroys the wit and liveliness of the Fool, smudging the mirror that foolery holds up to its audience. It’s as meaningless as it is muddy.
The elephant in the room is the pair of Japanese kimonos that Kingsford-Smith and Seidenstein wear throughout, an aesthetic choice irrelevant to staging, setting or performance. One is left to suppose that the orientalism adds an off-the-peg artistic mystique, something that will leave a slightly bitter taste in the mouth of anyone with even the slightest post-colonial sensibility. Perhaps, though, it is the production’s saving grace that it did not pursue this theme further, its attitude – or lack thereof - towards mental illness boding badly for its sensitivity.
This is Shakespeare with the heart ripped out, lacking in meat, lacking in guts, and absent of brains. They’ve butchered it. And it’s us who have to eat up the entrails.