After launching with Dunsinane, David Greig’s exciting sequel to Macbeth, the RSC’s new writing season continues at Hampstead with Dennis Kelly’s re-working of King Lear as if it was a cross between Enron and the plays of Howard Barker. Lear is now Colm (Jeremy Irons), who starts the play by dividing his corporate kingdom into new fiefdoms - he’ll reclaim control of Belize himself, while Richard (Jonathan Slinger) and Catherine (Helen Schlesinger) divide the rest of the spoils.
Joanna Horton (Barbara) and Jeremy Irons (Colm) in The Gods Weep at Hampstead Theatre, London Photo: Keith Pattison
Thus is unleashed a corporate power battle - and it’s going to be a bloody one, in every sense. But while it is undoubtedly bold and ambitious for Kelly to write on such an epic canvas rather than the domestic studio environments he typically works within, the RSC has also straightjacketed him into establishing modern parallels to Shakespeare’s world.
He also recently confessed in an interview that when he turned it in to the RSC, it was five hours long, and expressed surprise that they picked it up, “because it was a real fucking mess”. In fact, it still is, and urgent cutting - early previews ran for close to four hours, although it’s now under three - haven’t solved its unwieldiness. The RSC needs to offer better dramaturgical support.
Next to the driving urgency of the world conjured so expertly in Rupert Goold’s production of Enron, the stage here is drained of tension, partly because it’s difficult to always work out what’s going on, or to care. In the circumstances, the actors cope admirably to keep hold of its weird shifts in tone, place and pace, and though it is good to see Irons returning to the RSC after an absence of some 23 years, it’s a pity that he has not been lured back to re-establish his classical credentials but instead to add lustre to this lacklustre new play.